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L.A. train station shut after explosive device taken

(The following story by Stuart Pfeifer appeared on the Los Angeles Times Staff website on May 10.)

LOS ANGELES A man believed to be a transient walked off with a suitcase containing a component of an explosive device during a Sheriff's Department training exercise Wednesday at Union Station, causing officials to close the busy downtown transit hub for 90 minutes and snarling commutes for hundreds of Amtrak, Metrolink and MTA passengers.

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies had placed the suitcase in a public area of the historic downtown train station so that dogs could practice searching for explosives. A man described by witnesses as a transient walked off with the suitcase about noon. He was not found, despite a search that involved about 100 deputies, Sheriff's Cmdr. Dan Finkelstein said.

The device by itself did not pose a threat to the public, Finkelstein said.

Sheriff's officials closed Union Station while deputies and Los Angeles police officers searched for the man. About 200 Amtrak passengers were forced to wait in two trains during the station closure, said Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham.

Metrolink and Metropolitan Transit Authority trains were not allowed into Union Station during the closure, affecting hundreds of other passengers. Metrolink trains ran behind schedule much of the afternoon, said rail system spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell.

Also inconvenienced were dozens of patrons who had planned to dine at Traxx, the popular restaurant inside the station. Traxx general manager Melanie Makaiwi said she called about 45 people who had made reservations to let them know about the restaurant closure.

"We wrote the day off" as a loss, she said.

The Sheriff's Department trains its explosives-sniffing dogs four hours a week, often in public places, to keep their skills sharp, Finkelstein said.

The department will investigate how someone was able to take the suitcase without deputies noticing.

It was the first time explosive material had been lost during the department's trainings, Finkelstein said.

Makaiwi said she found a bright side of the station closure.

"For me, it was great. I actually got some stuff done today. It gave me a couple of hours to catch up," she said. "Thanks, Sheriff's Department."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

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