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Sheriff explains response to suspicious but harmless device found at Helena school

Posted at 6:08 PM, Oct 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-17 20:13:10-04
HELENA —

The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) released pictures Tuesday of the suspicious item found at Rossiter Elementary School in Helena that caused a school evacuation, and explained their response.

Early Tuesday morning, law enforcement were called to Rossiter Elementary School after a staff member found a suspicious looking plastic bottle wrapped in black tape with nuts and washers on the campus play-ground.

Students were evacuated, streets were shut down, and a news release was sent out, in which the public was told an improvised explosive device had detonated.

"If I could go back, I wouldn't use the word 'IED,'" said Sheriff/Coroner Leo Dutton. “I would have said, ‘We found a device.’”

Dutton told MTN he recognizes the public was alarmed by the use of the word and there’s information he could relayed differently.

"The deputy that responded is a veteran, I know him, he looked at it and it matched the criteria of which he has seen overseas: a bottle with tape around it with nuts and bolts scattered in a long debris field," said Dutton. “I still trust all of the deputies, but I am going to think about those words.”

The announcement of the object being an "IED" was made around 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning.

Five hours later, law enforcement had a much better understanding of what the item truly was, and what had unfolded that led to the bottle being placed where it was found.

The bottle had been moved to the school from a nearby construction site earlier by an individual with no malicious intent.

“We saw video and still pictures that apparently earlier in the morning that bottle was upright such as described earlier, that a young man tried to kick a field goal with it," said Dutton

When the boy kicked the bottle its contents "sprayed" out leading officers to believe it had "detonated.”

"I had no choice, knowing what I knew then versus what we know now totally different decisions, only thing I would change is how I said it," said Dutton. “It’s my fault and my issue. My issue to correct. From this point on I will be withholding information until I can verify fully.”

Dutton said he wants the public to know the thought process that went through the calls that he made, and at the end of the day the safety of people will always come first.

“I hope people know that in law enforcement you have to make a snap decision in three seconds or less,” said Dutton.

Every year, the sheriff's responds to dozens of calls about potential explosive devices.

Those calls have included “sparkler bombs” in mailboxes and even pipe bombs.

"We have a robot and an ability to x-ray on scene and they have chemical tests they can do right there - [in this case] there was no explosive material or anything like that," said Dutton.

Dutton said he’s proud of how well the students and staff at Rossiter handled the situation.

Dutton also told MTN he plans on meeting with Superintendent of Schools Tyler Ream to set up a better communication plan between the schools and local law enforcement.

Dutton wants to start a one-call system, so everyone is on the same page as quickly as possible in case of emergencies.