Police arrested and charged yesterday the man they allege is responsible for bringing to Hawaii at least a portion of the illegal fireworks that exploded in a Waikele storage bunker earlier this month, killing five men.
The aerial fireworks had been confiscated by federal agents from a shipping container that arrived from Shanghai on Dec. 6, 2009, and were being held as evidence, federal officials said in court documents. Authorities previously refused to disclose the source of the Waikele fireworks other than to say they had been confiscated.
Gifford Chang, 44, president of Tiger Corp., was arrested at his Kapiolani Boulevard office yesterday. Chang, who owns several nonfireworks businesses and is a leader in the Chinatown community, was released on $100,000 bail after making an initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Barry Kurren yesterday afternoon.
Chang is charged with falsifying statements involving the entry of goods, smuggling, and importing explosive materials without a license.
U.S. attorneys said Chang’s company has imported consumer-grade fireworks for nearly 15 years but did not have a federal license to import or handle commercial fireworks.
If convicted, Chang faces up to 20 years on the smuggling count, 10 years for importing explosives without a license and two years for making false statements.
Reginald Minn, Chang’s attorney, declined comment.
Nearly all the fireworks tied to the case against Chang were destroyed in the April 8 explosion that killed five men who had been working with confiscated fireworks in an underground storage cave for Waipio-based Donaldson Enterprises, a federal subcontractor. Officials have not said whether fireworks confiscated from Tiger Corp. were the only confiscated explosives in the cave.
The loss of the fireworks destroyed in the Waikele explosion would not affect the government’s case against Chang because samples of four types of fireworks from the shipping container had been stored elsewhere for examination, said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Shipley.
Officials with the U.S. Customs and Borders Protection’s Shanghai Container Security Initiative alerted the Honolulu office of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that a container may have contained illegal fireworks, according to court documents. The federal agents in Shanghai told Hawaii officials that Chinese customs officials declined to inspect the container because they deemed the cargo "too dangerous," court documents said.
Inspectors here found eight "groups of cardboard cartons" that were marked as 1.4G-type consumer fireworks, court documents said. Four of them, labeled as consumer fireworks under the product names "Krazy Kids," "Sky Festival," "O Triple C" and "Halawa," were later identified as the more explosive, 1.3G-type commercial fireworks.
Chang told investigators initially that the commercial fireworks were packed in the container without his knowledge and that this was the first time he had dealt with the exporter, Hunan Liuyang Global Fireworks Co., court documents said.
Later, however, Chang said he knew he had ordered commercial fireworks, and that he orders such items "to use in low-proximity 1.4G type fireworks display shows that he operates," the documents said. An official with the Chinese fireworks company, meanwhile, told Hawaii federal officials that her company had dealt with Chang and the Tiger Corp. for five years.
Court documents also said that a Customs and Border Patrol officer found a YouTube video featuring illegal fireworks for sale in Honolulu with the names of the aforementioned products from the container. The person who put the video on the Internet, who later became a federal informant, told authorities he had illegally bought and sold the commercial fireworks in Hawaii as late as 2009, court documents said.
Four samples taken were analyzed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and additional samples of each were preserved for evidentiary purposes of the case, a court affidavit said.
"However, the remainder of the 1.3G-type fireworks discovered in container 9899 were accidentally destroyed on April 9, 2011, in an explosion at a facility where they were being stored pending the completion of the investigation in this matter," the documents said.
Typically, confiscated explosives are held until a case is completed, he said. After yesterday’s hearing, Shipley declined to say how many fireworks had been stored in the Waikele unit.
"The standard procedure for federal law enforcement agencies is to store contraband seized during criminal investigations until it’s no longer needed, whether that be marijuana, or methamphetamine, or fireworks that’s not lawfully possessed," he said.
Kurren ordered that while out on bail, Chang stay away from conducting any business involving fireworks, including any legal trade. Shipley pointed out that the Tiger Corp. had brought in three shipping containers of fireworks in 2009, including the one under investigation. The other two were not inspected, Shipley said. The Tiger Corp. also brought in one container in 2010, which was deemed to contain legal fireworks, he said.