On an early Sunday morning in April 2019, a Phoenix-area man got hold of dangerous radiological materials and was intent on hurting himself and others.
It was a volatile and unique situation, but something that the FBI and local law enforcement had prepared and trained for.
Jared Atkins stole three radiological devices that contained a radioactive substance known as Iridium-192 from his workplace, along with the tools to open the devices and expose substance. The devices would normally be used in a controlled environment for examining underground pipes.
Uncontrolled, however, this material could be dangerous. Atkins knew this and told his family he was using the material to end his life, knowing he would harm anyone who tried to stop him.
After driving around with the radiological material in his car, Atkins went back to his apartment and engaged in a standoff with law enforcement.
“The energy coming from this material is pretty powerful, and everyone on our team wanted to be out there doing what we were trained to do to protect the community from it,” said Special Agent Jay Henze, one of the bomb techs in the FBI Phoenix Field Office at the time.
The situation created a dual challenge: to safely arrest Atkins and to safely contain the material. This required significant coordination and teamwork across agencies.
The investigative team—which included the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and Phoenix Police Department, with support from the FBI Phoenix Stabilization Task Force and laboratory and intelligence analysts—set up a command post at a nearby fire station and came up with a plan. First, they had to verify the radiological material was in Atkins’ car. Bomb techs broke the window of the car and verified all three devices were there.
After consulting with experts at the U.S. Department of Energy and other scientists, bomb techs then used specialized equipment to secure the material. The devices were then sent to a laboratory for analysis and evidence preservation.
After a two-hour standoff, the Phoenix Police Department and the FBI convinced Atkins to surrender.
Atkins pleaded guilty to weapons of mass destruction charges and was sentenced in March to 15 years in prison.
Critical to the successful outcome was the fact that FBI Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department had a long history of working together and training for a scenario like this one. The FBI Phoenix Stabilization Task Force—stabilization is the term for neutralizing the threat of a radiological device—had been preparing for this since 2012. They had thought through similar scenarios and prepared equipment and plans to respond.
“We had training for this from scientists who make this equipment and who know all about radiation and how it works. We had some of the best training you could get on how to handle radiological materials,” Henze said. “Almost eight years of preparation helped us to be successful on game day.”