by: illustration by PATRICK SHERMAN, The trail of the fireworks thieves lead to two deaths on a California freeway.

An elaborate criminal plot that began with a $500,000 heist in Clackamas on the weekend of June 10 ended in tragedy on the I-5 freeway in Coalinga, Calif., with the death of an innocent couple.

'This story took on a life of its own,' said Detective Jim Strovink, public information officer with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office.

'We got a call on Sunday morning that a large assortment of fireworks had been stolen from American Promotional Events in Clackamas,' Strovink said. 'The company estimated their value at $500,000.'

The company had taken appropriate security precautions, according to Strovink - storing the fireworks in two 48-foot trailers, backed end-to-end to prevent the doors from being opened. In addition, the lot was fenced with a locked gate.

'The suspects came to the location equipped to breach the lock and a tractor-trailer rig, which they hooked up to the trailers and used to separate them,' he said.

The perpetrators loaded the fireworks onto a pair of 26-foot box trucks stolen from other local businesses.

'We actually had an employee of one of those businesses, Levitz Furniture, who saw the truck he drives at work every day traveling southbound on I-205 at 6 a.m. on Sunday,' said Strovink. 'The suspects had removed all the furniture - they weren't interested in that.'

CCSO immediately released news of the theft to other law enforcement agencies and the media.

'We've got a large quantity of fireworks here - we're talking gunpowder and explosives,' he said.

Both trucks were found abandoned in Salem, after the local police received tips from concerned citizens. One eyewitness reported seeing the suspects loading the fireworks into a rental truck, which investigators traced to McMinnville.

'One of the trucks had about a third of its load still inside - they didn't pack it very effectively' said Strovink. 'The Salem Police Department was very accommodating in processing the vehicles for us: dusting for fingerprints and looking for other evidence that could have been left behind.'

The suspects continued south on I-5 into California. Near the tiny town of Coalinga, halfway between Sacramento and Los Angeles, one of the two trucks crossed into the northbound lanes and struck a passenger vehicle head-on, killing the couple inside.

'It killed them outright, I believe,' said Strovink.

Responding to the scene of the accident, alert officers from the California Highway Patrol noticed that the two men in the truck were behaving strangely.

'They were trying to contact the people in another rental truck - they appeared to know them,' said Strovink.

Officers detained the suspects, charging them with two counts of vehicular manslaughter. Several hours later, in Bakersfield, the highway patrol intercepted the second truck and took two additional suspects into custody.

'Those individuals have been interviewed. We have statements from them, and we have a good case against them,' said Strovink. 'We are looking at which jurisdiction should move ahead with the prosecution.

'The FBI has been alerted - we do potentially have federal crimes here.'

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