METHUEN — A rash of homemade plastic-bottle bombs used to blow up mailboxes has prompted arson investigators and the state police fire marshal's office to offer up to a $5,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of anyone responsible for making and setting off the incendiary devices.
Yesterday at about 6:30 a.m., Diane Gagnon of 1 Edgeworth St., went outside to put a letter in her mailbox when she found a plastic bottle sticking out the front.
She woke up her husband, Dan, who checked out the unusual sight and immediately called police.
Methuen police arson investigator Matt Bistany, Methuen patrolman Neil Quinlan, State Police bomb squad expert Paul Horgan and Methuen Fire Department Deputy Bill Barry responded.
While the supposed bomb didn't actually explode, it did leave chemical stains on the inside of the mailbox, and may have blown open the mailbox door.
Bistany said it is at least the third device of its kind found in the neighborhood in the last few weeks, although in the two other cases, the bombs actually succeeded in blowing apart the mailboxes.
Barry said the bombs, made up of typical household chemicals poured into plastic bottles and then sealed shut with the cap, can be very powerful.
"We take these very seriously," he said. "Kids have lost their fingers and had their faces injured from these things. It's very serious."
Indeed, a Google search on the Internet reveals hundreds of websites dedicated to helping people make bombs out of plastic water bottles, chlorine, alcohol, baking soda and even Mento candies and Diet Coke.
YouTube is filled with videos showing the bottles exploding unexpectedly in the faces or hands of unsuspecting teens or youths who think it's fun to blow stuff up.
Bistany said that he thinks that's what's going on here.
"This is nothing related to this homeowner," he said. "It's just kids getting the recipe from the Internet and trying to blow things up."
Since the one found yesterday morning had already gone off, the bottle was simply removed from the mailbox and placed into a brown paper bag and taken to a State Police lab for analysis.
"They are going to examine the contents of the bottle," Bistany said.
Dan Gagnon, meanwhile, said he's lived on the street for 15 years and never had a problem.
"I think it was just a prank," he said, noting that kids sometimes gather on the ballfield or the old playground of the former Ashford School, which is now a condo complex for people 55 and older.
Barry warned would-be pranksters to be aware that the recipes they find on the Internet may be inaccurate and designed to blow up quickly, injuring anyone within range.
"There are guys who put recipes on the Internet because they know it will blow up prematurely," he said. "This is not a thing to be taken lightly."
The scene was cleared by around 8 a.m. and Dan Gagnon was able to replace the soiled mailbox with an extra one he keeps in his garage for the winter.
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