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A dangerous discovery

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Brad Criddle spends his days legally breaking into homes, sifting through people's junk and putting new locks on old front doors.

Criddle, a property manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs, walks through dozens of homes lost through foreclosed mortgages each year in Howard County, Carroll County and western Baltimore County, but none had held what he found July 14 in Richmond Laney's Ellicott City property.

Criddle thought it was just another house as he opened the front door in the 3600 block of Fels Lane. It was 10:45 a.m. on a Friday.

Criddle was in for a long day.

In moments, he would see things in the house that would bring federal, state and local law enforcement running to the neighborhood. Carefully maneuvering around piles of junk and stacks of papers, Criddle made his way into the house, carrying a flashlight. Neighbors had told him weapons were in the home, and although he suspected they were joking, he avoided flipping light switches and perhaps sparking an explosion.

He shined his light on two metal containers. They were stamped "U.S. Army" and shaped like snowball syrup dispensers. Criddle thought they were strange things to have in a house, but he moved on.

Criddle swept his flashlight beam around the messy rooms. To his disbelief, mixed in with Laney's clothing, computer equipment and papers - typical items Criddle finds in most abandoned homes - were guns, explosives and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

Military gear and uniforms lay in heaps among other clothes. He said one uniform, which was on a hanger, laying on a pile of clothing, bore a brass nameplate that read "Laney."

Bundles of rifles stood in corners of the living room. Criddle estimates there were 30 or 40 rifles, some of them very old, with bayonets attached. Amid the junk, Criddle saw boxes containing grenades and ammunition of different sizes, shapes and colors.

Whoever maintained this collection kept weapons the way most people display knickknacks, Criddle thought.

"I had never, never seen anything like this," he recalled. "I didn't know what to make of it at first.

"But when I saw the grenades, I knew I needed help."

Criddle backtracked out of the house. Once outside, he considered his options.

"At first, I thought - I was hoping - that maybe he [Laney] just wanted to collect these things and look at them," Criddle said. "I mean, I own guns. I believe we have the right to own guns, but the more I thought about it, the more I was sure the police needed to be involved."

Criddle locked the house and made some phone calls. He called the VA office to report what he had seen. Then he called police.

A patrolman, Officer Keith Berry, and a locksmith met Criddle at the house early that afternoon. Criddle hadn't needed a locksmith the first time because the doors were unlocked. In fact, two neighbors had been walking out of Laney's home when he arrived.

The neighbors told Criddle, and later the police, that Laney's brother had given them a key to the house so they could rescue Laney's pet geese.

The neighbors knew Laney was in jail for criminal contempt stemming from a child-support case. Criddle saw that the neighbors, indeed, had four geese that they had taken from the house.

Criddle would later learn that other people had been in the Laney home and had taken things from it. One girl had a sword she said someone gave her from the Laney home.

That afternoon, Criddle went through the house again, this time with a police officer. As soon as the officer saw what Criddle was worried about, he called another officer to the scene. As more and more police arrived, it became apparent that the men were in a dangerous place. Eventually, the state fire marshal arrived and the neighborhood was cordoned off.

"I mean, that must have been unbelievable," said VA realty specialist Jerry Block. "The management broker must have been absolutely floored."

Block wasn't at the Laney property, but he is familiar with the way a property securing usually works. He's had some scares of his own.

"The closest thing I can think to what happened in that case was, three years ago, I walked into a property in Chase, and I found three tracer rounds sitting on a bed," he said.

Block said he carefully transported them to an Army base where they could be re-entered into inventory.

But the bullets Block found were nothing compared to what was in the Fels Lane house.

The state fire marshal's office had to call the Army because state facilities were inadequate to store everything. Authorities carefully removed the weapons from the house and loaded them onto an Army truck.

Criddle said he stood, bewildered, as police brought weapon after weapon out of the house. He stayed because he had never seen anything like this. He also had the responsibility to install new locks on the doors, because the house was now VA property.

Meanwhile, police hauled out weapons that Criddle hadn't seen on his walks through the house.

"The minute they brought that rocket launcher and live 81 mm round out, I knew I did the right thing," Criddle said.

Laney is being held in lieu of $2 million bail at the Howard County Detention Center, charged with 58 counts of possession of a destructive device. He also has been charged with two counts of possession with intent to manufacture a destructive device, and one count of reckless endangerment, which carries a penalty of up to $5,000 and up to five years in prison. The 60 other charges each carry a maximum penalty of up to $250,000 and 25 years in prison.

Federal agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, are assessing the stockpile and trying to establish where the weapons came from.

Not surprisingly, the weapons Criddle stumbled across are far outside the bounds of what VA inspectors usually find in abandoned homes.

"Most of the time we find junk - and tons of it," Block said. "People just get up from the dinner table and leave. They leave behind all the stuff they don't want because, hey, it's not their problem. We have to clean it up."

As the Army truck pulled away from the house that evening, Criddle said he thought about how at 10:45 a.m. he had stepped onto a property that would turn the day into one of the strangest of his life. He arrived at his Ellicott City home after 10 p.m.

"I was relieved it was over," he said. "We definitely saved at least a small portion of the world."

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