12.17.2007

TS - 04/21/2006 Lethal Weapon

Lethal Weapon
Was it “just a flare gun”?

On April 14, Eureka Police officers were in a standoff with Cheri Lyn Moore, a 48-year-old woman holed up in her second-story 516 G St. apartment. Moore reportedly had a flare gun, and a Times-Standard photographer captured Moore leaning out her window with what was almost certainly a bright-orange flare pistol. Some observers, however, have been dismissive of the threat potential of a flare gun.

Questions remain about why a SWAT team stormed the apartment after only 2 hours and shot Moore dead. But once the door was apparently smashed in with a hand-held battering ram, what were the SWAT officers facing?

While the Eureka Police Department has not said whether there was any other weapon available to Moore, what hazard does a burning flare pose to a human? At least one expert has said the burning metal magnesium could cause serious bodily harm.

A typical flare burns at about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, for about 7 seconds. Paper and wood burns at about 450 degrees.

The Times-Standard on Thursday conducted its own, unscientific test.

We purchased a 12-gauge Orion flare pistol from a local store, a gun that looks identical to the one Moore had.

We taped a piece of 1/2-inch particle board to the front of an inflatable dummy. We then put a heavy flannel shirt over both, buttoned it and stuffed it with a 2-inch stack of newspaper.

We carried the dummy onto the wave slope on the South Spit. (We received clearance to conduct the flare test from the U.S. Coast Guard.)

We fired three flares at the dummy, two at a distance of 20 feet, and the last at a distance of 15 feet. The distances were based on a photographer's visit to an apartment neighboring Moore's.

The first flare was fired at the part of the board that stuck up above the dummy. While the kick from the light, plastic pistol was minimal, the first round penetrated the particle board and the flare landed on the beach. It put a 3/4-inch entry hole in the board. The exit hole was 2 inches around.

The second flare was fired at the shirt stuffed with the stack of newspapers. The round bounced off, with no damage to the shirt. It did, however, slightly dent and tear the stack of newspapers to a depth of about 1/2 inch.

The third flare was aimed at the “neck” of the dummy, at collar height. This round was the most damaging. The flare stuck the particle board and lodged there, burning for at least 5 seconds.

Parts of the flare also dropped onto the inflatable dummy, burning through it.

The entry and exit holes in the board were similar to the first flare's. The flare also scalded the wood, though it did not set the board on fire. The flare also struck the collar behind the board, and while it discolored the fabric, there was no damage to it.

A flare burns too hot for water to extinguish. It takes a Class D fire extinguisher to snuff it out, said Eureka Fire Capt. Bill Gillespie. That extinguisher was not on-scene that Friday, he said, and firefighters were instead geared up to fight a structure fire.

(Unless an extinguisher was immediately available, the flare would have burned out long before anyone could get to it. Whether it would have started a structure fire would probably have depended on what material it struck or landed on — paper versus plastic versus Sheetrock.)

Gillespie believes that if a fire did start in the old building, it could have spread quickly.

At least three people besides Moore remained inside the building, which was otherwise evacuated at the beginning of the incident.

“It would burn very readily,” Gillespie said.

The fire department has had some experience with fires started by flares. Revelers around the Fourth of July have discharged flares from the bay, only to have them fall on the roofs of buildings.

Gillespie said the flare generally goes out before it burns through the roofing material, and the buildings have all been spared.

It is also possible that a flare gun could be used as an even more lethal weapon. A 12-gauge flare gun could accommodate a 12-gauge shot shell — like those filled with bird shot or buck shot, said Phoenix, Ariz., ballistics expert Ronald R. Scott. (The Orion flare pistol we tested would not take a shot shell; we tried.)

But Scott said the plastic gun would likely be damaged when the more powerful round went off.

Police have only said that an initial entry into the apartment found Moore brandishing a “handgun,” and the door was quickly closed. On the second entry, Moore “was in possession of a weapon.”

If it was a flare gun, it was a very dangerous weapon. If it was a flare gun loaded with a shot shell, it would have been even more dangerous.

The incident is under investigation. Police have only said that the decision was made to send in the SWAT team when it was believed Moore had put down her weapon, and they knew her whereabouts in the room.

Police have not said why that was the criteria for entry as opposed to waiting out the situation.

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