Local authorities are preparing themselves for one of the more interesting challenges of the year: On Thursday, they’re scheduled to light an explosive-laden Escondido house on fire and hope it doesn’t blow up and take its neighborhood with it.
Here are five questions (and five answers) about the “bomb factory” and the big burn:
1. Why Are They Setting the House on Fire?
Because they don’t want anything to explode. It sounds bizarre, but one way to get rid of explosives is to set them on fire under controlled conditions designed to prevent explosions.
The North County Times explains how it works:
When exposed to fire, explosives break down and vaporize rather than detonate, at least when they’re not confined. A blast results when gas tries to escape a container faster than that container allows.
Many of the volatile materials are in piles throughout the house and thus are expected to safely burn off …
A very hot fire helps ensure the materials will burn off. Authorities plan to make the blaze hot — 1,800 degrees hot. They’ll also cut holes in the roof and open windows to ensure the gas and smoke escape.
2. Who Owns the House?
The bomb-factory home is a rental, and its owner isn’t talking publicly. The NCT reports that county officials have said she won’t be reimbursed for any damage when the home is set aflame. (Some news reports have referred to the owner as a male: the LA Times quoted officials as saying the owner “is discussing compensation with his insurance company.”)
3. Will Insurance Cover Any Damage to Surrounding Homes?
Property insurance comes with lots of exemptions, and policies vary, Jim Whittle, an assistant general counsel with the American Insurance Association, told me. Even so, he said, they generally cover fire.
That’s good news for the person who owns the bomb-factory house and for neighbors whose homes might be damaged on Thursday if things go awry.
But insurance generally doesn’t cover war, terrorism and actions taken by governments. Insurance companies don’t like to cover these things because it’s hard to figure out the likelihood that they’ll happen, Whittle said.
If the government causes damage, he said, it may be responsible, leaving insurance companies off the hook. It’s not clear if homeowners could go after local governments over damage due to the burn of the Escondido house.
What about the terrorism exemption in a case like this? Perhaps the suspect was planning to use the explosives to terrorize people. Whittle said the language of an insurance policy would determine whether a company could get out of paying a claim by drawing on a terrorism clause.
There are other complications for the bomb-factory home’s landlord. Homeowner policies frown on paying off customers when they themselves purposefully cause damage. But in this case, the suspect is a renter, not the homeowner.
Homeowners policies can come with liability coverage, which pays for damage done to third parties. That could help the homeowner if neighbors go after her over damage to their homes. But liability is generally limited, often to the same amount that a house is insured for, Whittle said.
Neighbors may have other problems to worry about: A real estate agent tells our news partner NBC San Diego that their property values may fall by 10-20 percent, and the owners will have to disclose what happened to future buyers.
4. Who Is the Suspect?
The motives of suspect George Djura Jakubec, 54, remain unclear, and the media hasn’t been able to turn up much information about him.
As the NCT puts it, there’s no answer to this question: “What led a man with only a negligible criminal record to allegedly rob banks and mix a concoction of chemicals so potent that some 200 surrounding residences will be evacuated when authorities destroy the house Jakubec rented?”
His lawyer says Jakubec emigrated from Serbia as a child. He was married, although he’s estranged from his wife, and the U-T says he worked for a computer processor company but left the job in 2007. The company sued him.
His wife told the Union-Tribune “that he became obsessed with chemicals in his unemployment but (she) didn’t know what he was making with them.”
Jakubec has pleaded not guilty to charges related to bombmaking and bank robberies. He’s facing a federal prison sentence of up to 132 years if convicted, the NCT reports.
5. Where Did He Get the Materials?
News reports say authorities found 9-12 pounds of explosives in and around the house — the largest find of its type ever — plus grenades.
The U-T explains how he allegedly managed to put everything together:
Many of the ingredients needed to manufacture the explosives found at the home are likely available online or in stores, explosive experts said. One is a natural sweetener that can be found in health food stores or over the Internet.
“It’s easy to obtain them without going through any difficult purchase procedure,” said William Trogler, a chemistry professor at the University of California San Diego. “That’s why he’d be able to get precursors and not anyone know about it. You can get what you need at Home Depot and a beauty shop.”