Police: Explosive compounds found in Livingston High classroom; school evacuated

May 25, 2011 

LIVINGSTON -- Livingston police arrested high school teacher Japhia Smith Huhndorf on Wednesday afternoon after officials say they found a vial of nitroglycerin in her chemistry lab at Livingston High School -- her second arrest this week.

Police said they found about 4 milliliters of the explosive compound during an investigation, which sparked a schoolwide evacuation Wednesday. The 34-year-old chemistry teacher was arrested at her Atwater home the same day.

"We brought her here to the high school, and with her cooperation we were able to locate a small amount of nitroglycerin explosives," said Livingston police Sgt. Ray Fong.

Nitroglycerin can be used to make explosives and isn't normally found in a chemistry lab, according to Fong.

"That's an explosive substance, very volatile. Not really something you want to leave around," he explained. "It can go off with very little provocation."

The Merced Police Department Bomb Squad destroyed the nitroglycerin late Wednesday afternoon, according to Fong. He said detectives are still questioning Huhndorf about why she had the substance in her classroom.

She was booked at the Merced County Jail on suspicion of felony possession of a destructive device in a public place. She is being held in lieu of $500,000 bail. She also had been arrested Monday on suspicion of helping three students inhale chloroform.

About 1,100 students were evacuated Wednesday morning from the high school after police recommended the move to district administrators in the wake of reports that hazardous materials, possibly explosives, could be in Huhndorf's classroom, Fong said.

He said at the time of the evacuation that hazardous materials investigators from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were looking for explosives or components to make explosives in the chemistry lab operated by Huhndorf. Police learned about the items during interviews with the students suspected of inhaling chloroform. Fong also said there were documents that led them to believe the room contained explosive materials.

Merced Union High School District Superintendent Scott Scambray said administrators expect the school to reopen this morning.

Huhndorf was arrested Monday on suspicion of three counts of felony child endangerment after police say she assisted three male students as they ingested chloroform at least three times over a five-month period. She posted $50,000 bail for Monday afternoon's arrest, according to Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman.

The police hadn't been in contact with the teacher since her first arrest, Fong said.

Students were told to evacuate the campus and parents were made aware of the situation through a dialing system used by the school.

Alex Carrillo, a junior at Livingston High, said the evacuation announcement came over the school's public address system after his second-period class ended about 10:30 a.m. Students were ordered to congregate on the football field.

"The police came, but they never told us what was happening," he said.

Each student stayed on the football field until a parent arrived to take the child home or a student got permission to leave, Carrillo said.

Jessica Franco, a freshman at the high school, said she saw the bomb squad on campus. "I got scared," she said.

Rumors were floating around that there was a bomb at the school, she said.

"A lot of things going on in the high school, it's scary," Franco said.

Gurpal Samra, who sits on the Livingston City Council, was there to pick up his kids who attend the school.

"I feel that the police have everything under control. Remember, we have a lot of good people in charge of everything," Samra said.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsun-star.com. Online editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2464 or bbowers@mercedsun-star.com.

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