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Accused bomb-maker pleads not guilty

Man captured after allegedly leaving homemade bomb at health facility

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ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – A 24-year-old man who police say left a chemical bomb outside a mental health facility pleaded not guilty Thursday at his arraignment.

His bond is set at $350,000. His next pretrial hearing will be March 30.

Christopher Bell is charged with making or throwing a destructive device and three counts of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer. He was arrested last month after a SWAT standoff at an Atlantic Beach apartment complex.

According to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, Bell left a pressurized chemical device at River Point Behavioral Health at 6300 Beach Blvd., where he had been a patient.

Workers inside the facility called police just after midnight Tuesday after a red car pulled up and a package was thrown out of the car through the sun roof.

“He didn't know what he was doing exactly with it, and he didn't assemble it correctly, but had he assembled those items correctly that certainly could have caused some damage and certainly (could have) been a threat to anyone in that general area,” JSO Chief Tom Hackney said after the arrest.

Police said video from the facility showed Bell get out of the car and duck behind it after the package was thrown.

Bell then went up and left what was later found to be a note on top of the box, police said. They said the video shows him adjusting something in the box, acting like something was about to happen and then leaving after nothing happened.

Police were able to use evidence from the video and the diatribe Bell left to identify him and track him to the Sea Oats Apartments, off Mayport Road, about 10 miles from the facility, Hackney said.

Bell barricaded himself in his apartment unit and SWAT officers evacuated nearby apartments before trying to get Bell to come out, Hackney said.

Bell came out twice, armed with knives and swords, telling the SWAT and JSO officers that they would have to take his life.

He came back out for a third time, armed with a sword, and took a “Bruce Lee-like” fighting stance before advancing on detectives, Hackney said.

SWAT officer Matt Turner fired his AR-15 rifle once at Bell and missed, and another SWAT officer fired two rounds of rubber bullets, hitting Bell, Hackney said. He was then taken into custody.

Hackney said Bell has had encounters before with Atlantic Beach police in which he also wielded knives.

Bell was previously arrested for marijuana possession in December and subsequently Baker Acted. The police report said Bell was found dancing on the beach, wrapped in duct tape and acting bizarrely. Police found marijuana in his car, and he admitted he'd eaten mushrooms, according to the report.

Hackney said it appears from the diatribe Bell left behind at the mental health facility that Bell he been treated at River Point Behavioral Health, but Hackney did not say when that treatment occurred. Hackney said Bell wrote a rambling statement complaining of his treatment at the facility and problems with staff.

The staff and patients at the facility were not evacuated but were relocated to a secure area in the building while the bomb squad investigated the package.

The facility released a statement about the incident:

"Fortunately, there were no injuries to any of the patients or staff, which was River Point Behavioral Health's No. 1 concern. The staff and administration of the hospital are fully cooperating with authorities in their investigation and will continue to do so until its completion. We appreciate the exceptional responsiveness of the local law enforcement and JSO to ensure the safety of our facility and community."

Turner, the officer who fired at Bell and missed, has been a SWAT officer for six years and last month's incident was the first time he's fired his weapon, police said.

He will not be placed on administrative leave because he did not hit Bell when he fired, Hackney said.


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