A federal prosecutor and a defense attorney clashed Tuesday over whether a device used in an admitted $2 million extortion plot against Home Depot stores on Long Island was a functioning pipe bomb or a nonworking model.
Eastern District prosecutor Lara Treinis Gatz and defense attorney Leonard Lato of Hauppauge sharply disagreed about the capabilities of the device, found at a Huntington Home Depot, at the opening of the trial of Daniel Sheehan in federal District Court in Central Islip.
The device exploded when Suffolk police used a robot to try to neutralize it after the store had been evacuated.
Sheehan, 50, of Deer Park, has been charged with extortion and using a destructive device in the commission of extortion.
Extortion carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, but use of a destructive device in another felony carries an automatic mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.
Sheehan and his lawyer have conceded that Sheehan committed the extortion, in which he threatened to blow up three Home Depots on Long Island in 2012 unless he was paid money. But Sheehan denies the device found in the Huntington store on Oct. 15, 2012, was a working bomb, saying it was a model to show what he could do but it had no connection between the explosive and the igniter.
Unless he was paid the money, Sheehan wrote in a letter to the chain, the three bombs would go off on Black Friday, according to the government's evidence.
Lato said the device, although it was filled with explosive powder, was not rigged to go off, and only did so because of the way Suffolk bomb squad detectives attempted to render it harmless.
"To be a destructive device or not to be a destructive device, that is the question," Lato said in his opening remarks.
Treinis Gatz, however, scoffed at the claims that the device was not a bomb, and said Sheehan was nothing but an "angry, greedy and disgruntled Home Depot employee [who] has a grand plan to get rich at the expense of his hated employer and knew how to execute that dangerous plan."
Sheehan, a handyman, worked part time at the Home Depot in Deer Park.
Under questioning by Gatz, Suffolk County bomb squad Det. Anthony Gonzalez testified he used the standard procedures employed by United States law enforcement when confronted with a pipe bomb.
A pipe bomb is a metal tube filled with explosive powder and sealed at both ends with metal caps, with a mechanism to ignite the explosive, Gonzalez said.
The standard defusing procedure is to have a robot fire a metal or ceramic projectile at the inside edge of one of the caps, to knock it off, Gonzalez said. Without a sealed space to initially confine the gases generated by the explosives, the bomb does not build up enough pressure to cause a significant blast, Gonzalez said.
He said it was unusual for the standard procedure to actually ignite a bomb.
Lato suggested that if the bomb had been placed in a bucket or garbage can filled with water, the device would not have exploded.
But Gonzalez said that "was not a safe procedure."
The trial before U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley is expected to continue all week.