MIDLAND, Texas — A soldier arrested at a Texas airport and charged with trying to bring military-grade explosives on a cross-country flight was freed on bond Friday and allowed to return to North Carolina, where he is based.
David Counts, a federal magistrate judge in Midland, released Sgt. 1st Class Trey Scott Atwater on $50,000 unsecured bond, determining the Fort Bragg-based Green Beret was a low flight risk.
Atwater, 30, is charged with trying to bring explosives onto an airplane, which carries a maximum 10-year federal prison sentence.
Federal prosecutor John Klassen called the incident "a very serious one," but he told the judge investigators hadn't uncovered anything to suggest Atwater intended to harm the aircraft or the public and that they don't think he's a flight risk.
Atwater, who was dressed in a sweat shirt and track pants and whose legs were shackled, waived his right to a preliminary hearing that had been set for Friday.
His attorney, Jason Leach, told the judge his client "is prepared to comply" with the terms of his release, which include not possessing firearms, knives or explosives, not drinking alcohol, submitting to a mental health evaluation and random drug and alcohol screenings, and restricting his travel to only North Carolina and Texas.
Atwater was detained Saturday at Midland International Airport after authorities say security officers found C4 explosives in his carry-on luggage. Atwater, who lives in Hope Mills, N.C., and grew up in Midland, had his family with him when he was arrested.
According to court documents, Atwater told FBI agents he's a demolitions expert and had returned from his third tour in Afghanistan in April. He said his Army special forces team always carried C4, which troops use to blow the hinges off doors or destroy unexploded ordnance, and that he didn't know it was in his bag when he returned from his most recent deployment.
Agents said he told them the bag had been in his garage until the trip to Texas, and that he only used the bag's main compartment when packing.
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 have declined to say – 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.
GOP Rep. Mike Conaway, from Midland, said Thursday that FBI and Transportation Security Administration officials told his office Atwater had two 2.5-pound blocks of C4 in his luggage. He said he believes Atwater.
"That's the most plausible explanation," Conaway said. "He just forgot about it."
Conaway said officials are reviewing surveillance tapes from the Fayetteville airport to try to determine if security officials acted correctly after finding the smoke grenade.
The military is assisting in the investigation, but the Justice Department has jurisdiction, said Lt. Col. Tom Bryant, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.
"It would be speculative for me to say whether it's going to be a federal prosecution or a military one," Bryant said.
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.
C4 can be purchased legally by civilians who have, in the very least, explosives user permits, Tom Crowley with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Dallas said in an email. Most civilians who buy C4 are in law enforcement, are researchers or are people who use it for training, he said.
C4 used by the military is produced under a specific Department of Defense contract for military use only and is not for sale to the public, Crowley's email said.
Associated Press writer Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.
Betsy Blaney can be reached at http://twitter.com/betsyblaney