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Sheriff explains circumstances surrounding suspected "explosive device" at Helena school

Dutton said it was not a hoax, and there was no malicious intent.
Posted at 10:12 AM, Oct 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-16 12:28:12-04

HELENA — By Tuesday afternoon, things were back to normal outside Rossiter Elementary School in the Helena Valley school, after law enforcement officers determined what had initially been reported as a possible explosive device was not dangerous.

Officers were at the scene for much of the morning, investigating the item. But at an afternoon news conference, Lewis & Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton confirmed that it did not appear to be an explosive.

Dutton described the item as a plastic bottle covered in black electrical tape. He said it was filled with nuts, bolts, and washers and contained an unknown liquid.

“For the untrained eye, including mine, you’d probably guess that that quite possibly was an explosive device,” he said.

Here is the full text of a press release from the Lewis & Clark County Communications Coordinator on Tuesday at 9:35 a.m.; it was also posted to the Lewis & Clark County Emergency Management page on Facebook:

  • An Improvised Explosive Device was found this morning on the Rossiter School playground. It detonated shortly after. Nobody was injured. Rossiter students are being evacuated and the path for kids to evacuate has been cleared. Parents are asked to pick up their kids at the Little Red Schoolhouse East of the frontage road. Sierra Road is closed from Montana to the Frontage Road and people are asked to avoid this area. Buses are at the Little Red School House to keep the kids warm while they wait for their parents.
  • All Helena District 1 Schools and East Helena Schools are currently on lockdown to be searched by law enforcement but are not being evacuated at this time.
  • In addition to the Lewis and Clark Sheriff’s office, the FBI, Montana Highway Patrol, Helena Police Department, and Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms are on-scene as well as the LCCO bomb squad.

School officials found the bottle Tuesday morning near the basketball hoops on the school playground. They put cones around it and contacted law enforcement a 8:20 a.m. Offiicals said they checked an evacuation route to the nearby Little Red Schoolhouse, and once that route was confirmed to be safe, they brought about 490 students there so their parents could pick them up.

Dutton said the school initially reported a possible explosive device was still there, but people investigating later found debris around the area that led them to believe something might already have detonated. He said until the bomb squad and other trained experts were able to safely examine the bottle, law enforcement officers had to proceed as though it might be an explosive.

“We had to treat it exactly as we did,” he said.

Once experts arrived, Dutton said they determined there was no detonator attached to the bottle, and that the liquid did not appear to be flammable. Investigators now believe the bottle came from a construction site, and that it was moved by a homeless individual.

Dutton said it was not a hoax, and there was no malicious intent. “He didn’t do anything wrong,” Dutton said. “He wasn’t trying to plant a bomb; he didn’t even think it was that.”

Dutton said he understood the concern people have had over the changing reports, but that his office was releasing the information from their investigators as they got it.

“Our purpose was to let people know, one, there was no one injured,” he said. “Then we were told it did explode – still there was no one injured, the kids were safe. That’s what I needed to get out to the public; that’s why I reported the information we had.”

He said that Rossiter and Helena Public Schools responded correctly, given the information they had at the time. He said his office will always take a case like this seriously.

“We will take it on face value every time and treat it accordingly, that it is some kind of exploding device,” he said.

Dutton said the evacuation of students and the effort to reunite them with their parents had gone smoothly, but he realized the entire incident had been difficult for families.

“What I hope parents take some solace in is that we did respond appropriately, we responded quickly, and we told you the truth, what it was when we found out,” he said.

In addition, schools in and around Great Falls were briefly ordered to implement on "shelter in place" status as police officers and Sheriff's deputies performed sweeps to ensure there were no threats.

Here is a photo of the news release from the Lewis & Clark County Communications Coordinator: