Navy sailor accused of stealing hand grenades told investigators Mexican ‘cartel’ may have some, officials say

A Navy sailor could face up to a decade in prison and a $250,000 fine after being arrested this week on charges he stole 20 hand grenades from a San Diego-based destroyer.

Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Aaron Booker, 31, of Waukegan, Illinois, was taken into custody in Great Lakes on Tuesday by U.S. Navy criminal investigators and was expected to be returned to California. The grenades were discovered missing from their storage crates in February 2017 and found months later on the side of Interstate 15 in northwest Arizona.

“A backpack full of grenades on the side of the road is obviously extremely dangerous and could have had resulted in injuries or death,” U.S. Attorney Adam L. Braverman said in a statement. “The theft of explosives is a very serious offense, particularly if it is carried out by an insider with access to military weapons and secrets.”

Booker stole the concussion grenades — each of which contained about a half-pound of TNT — while he was assigned to the Weapons Department aboard the USS Pinckney, prosecutors said. Booker’s job was to check the temperature of the secured locker where the grenades were kept.

Only gunner’s mates had the access to the lockers, authorities said, according to Stars and Stripes.

A week after the grenades vanished in February 2017, Booker left the ship to drive to his new duty station in Great Lakes.

The 15 sailors who had access to the grenades at the time let Navy investigators search their vehicles and homes, but nothing was found, Stars and Stripes reported. But several of the sailors, in interviews with agents, described Booker as being angry with his higher-ups on board the Pinckney over a previous disciplinary incident, a federal court complaint said.

About two months later, a black military backpack containing 18 grenades was found leaning on a guardrail on the side of Interstate 15 in Arizona, officials said. The words “GM2 BOOKER” were written on a tag inside the backpack, prosecutors said.

Booker told investigators he had driven that road but said the backpack had been stolen from him and he denied taking the grenades, according to the criminal complaint.

In a call to a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent, Booker also said the two missing grenades might be in Tijuana because a former motorcycle club he belonged to was linked to two people who had connections to the “cartel,” and who had requested for the explosives to be stolen, Stars and Stripes reported, citing the complaint.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.