MIDLAND, Texas (AP) — A soldier charged with trying to bring explosives on an airplane told investigators he used them in Afghanistan but didn’t realize any were in a bag he brought back to the U.S. and apparently carried on a flight from North Carolina to Texas.
Trey Scott Atwater, of Hope Mills, N.C., was arrested Saturday while trying to go through security at an airport in Texas. Authorities say the 30-year-old had a carry-on bag containing C4, a powerful explosive used in Iraq and Afghanistan to blow the hinges off doors or destroy unexploded ordinance.
According to court documents, Atwater told the FBI he is a demolitions expert who returned from his third deployment to Afghanistan in April. He said his Army special forces team always carried at least two blocks of C4, but he didn’t know any explosives were in his bag when he returned to his post at Fort Bragg, N.C.
He said the bag had been in his garage since then and he didn’t see any explosives in the main compartment when he packed for his trip to Texas.
Atwater was detained at the Fayetteville, N.C., airport on Dec. 24 when security agents found a military smoke grenade in his carry-on bag. Court documents don’t specify — and transportation officials wouldn’t say Tuesday — whether investigators now suspect C4 was in Atwater’s bag then or whether he acquired it later.
Atwater did not say where he got the C4, although his comments in court documents indicate he could have brought it from Afghanistan.
After the smoke grenade was confiscated, Atwater was “admonished” and allowed to fly to Texas, court documents said. Typically, bags are thoroughly searched and placed on X-ray machines for a second time after a suspicious item is found, although court documents don’t say whether that was done in Atwater’s case.
He and his family were returning home when he was stopped at Midland International Airport. A Transportation Security Administration agent spotted a suspicious item in his carry-on during screening, and a police bomb squad identified it as C4.
C4 looks like a block of clay and requires a blasting cap or detonator to explode. Combat troops have ready access to the explosive, which can also be used as fuel for heating water or rations. The U.S. military forbids troops from taking C4 out of combat zones, but the screening process for troops heading home is not as stringent as for people flying on commercial airlines.
Documents do not say how much C4 was in Atwater’s bag or whether there were blasting caps.
Atwater has been charged with trying to bring explosives onto an airplane, which carries a maximum 10-year federal prison sentence. He waived his initial court appearance Tuesday, and his attorney, Jason Leach, declined to comment on the case.
The FBI didn’t find out about the smoke grenade until after Atwater’s arrest in Midland.
“When I asked him about the December 24 Fayetteville incident after TSA informed me of it, Atwater acknowledged that it had occurred, but said he had forgotten to mention it to us during our initial interview,” the FBI agent wrote in the affidavit filed in the case.
TSA spokesman Greg Soule declined to comment Tuesday.
No one answered the door Tuesday at the home of Atwater’s parents in a quiet middle-class neighborhood in Midland, about 320 miles west of Dallas. An American flag between the two garage doors fluttered in the breeze. Relatives have not spoken publicly since his arrest or returned multiple phone messages requesting comment.
A neighbor who lives two doors down, Pam Moore, 55, said she watched Atwater grow up. She said he was a “wonderful kid” who played high school football.
“We were real proud of him when he joined the military,” Moore said. “I feel sorry that he got caught up in this. … I just hope everything works out for him. I really do.”
Brown reported from Fort Worth. Associated Press writer Chris Tomlinson in Austin also contributed to this report.