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Man killed by Civil War artillery shell

by Robert Morgan (11/10/08).

By MARK BOWES
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER

The artillery shell that exploded Monday and killed a Civil War relics dealer outside his Chesterfield County home was a cannonball about 8 to 10 inches in diameter, a federal official said yesterday.

The explosion outside the rear garage of Sam White’s residence off Bradley Bridge Road left a small crater in his asphalt driveway and sent pieces of shrapnel shooting through the side and roof of his detached, two-car garage.

“And there were pieces that just flew out and landed in the yard,” said Bill Dunham, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Chesterfield.

“Basically, it was a large cannonball,” Dunham said of the bowling-ball-sized shell, which sent what he described as a 5to 7-pound chunk of shrapnel through the roof of another house about a quarter-mile away.

Dunham said investigators believe they know how the explosion occurred, but that information is being withheld until the investigation into White’s death has been finalized. Dunham would only say that White was “working on” the shell when it exploded about 1:20 p.m.

“We have enough information that we believe we know generally what he was doing and how it happened,” Dunham said. “But we can’t say with 100 percent accuracy that that’s exactly what he was doing.”

White, who was well-known in the Civil War community and ran a relics business from his home in the 14100 block of Granite Pointe Court, cleaned and disarmed Civil War period military ordnance for about $35 each, according to his Web site.

After Monday’s accident, local, state and federal authorities converged on his house to inspect the remaining munitions he had stored in his garage. Concerned about the potential volatility of some of the ordnance, authorities removed about 75 items, about half of which were destroyed at county-owned property next to a nearby landfill, state police said yesterday.

Late Tuesday, after police had removed many of the munitions, authorities called on Army and Marine explosive-ordnance-disposal experts from Fort Belvoir and Quantico Marine Corps Base to examine other items that were considered questionable.

“They were a great help in identifying what goes and what doesn’t, what’s dangerous and what’s questionable,” Dunham said.

The ordnance units took some of remaining shells with them, Dunham said. “I think some of these items will be able to be returned to the family after they’re rendered safe.”

Although local and federal authorities are researching the issue, several officials contacted yesterday said it didn’t appear that White, who worked briefly as a Henrico County police officer in the mid-1970s, broke any federal, state or local laws in keeping the munitions on his property.

“We researched a lot of federal, state and local statutes, trying to figure out what governs items like this, what’s the proper way to store these things, if there is any recourse we have, and can we dictate where people put them,” Dunham said. “There’s a lot of unanswered questions there.”

A state law that makes it a felony to manufacture, possess or use explosive materials includes an exemption for firefighters, police officers and members of the military, along with people who possess, transport or distribute explosive devices for scientific and educational reasons, “or any other lawful purpose.”

Chesterfield Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Ken Nickels said it is unlikely that his office would prosecute someone for possessing explosive material that was a Civil War relic — depending, of course, on the circumstances and the intent of the person possessing the item.

Dunham said there doesn’t appear to be any federal explosives law that would cover Civil War ordnance, “except maybe a storage mandate.”

“If you have 50 pounds or more of black powder, you have to have it in an approved storage location,” he said. “But some of [White's] shells had only 10 ounces [of powder], so it would take a lot to aggregate 50 pounds’ worth.”

Dunham said Monday’s explosion, while tragic, has been a learning experience for law enforcement.

“We’ve learned a lot in this because in the past, we haven’t had an incident with these type of devices and this number of them,” he said. “I didn’t realize there’s such an interest in relics like this. There’s a lot of people out there looking to uncover and collect that kind of stuff.”
Contact Mark Bowes at (804) 649-6450 or mbowes@timesdispatch.com.

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