Bomb set off at Scottdale business

Mary Pickels
| Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011

A Scottdale man who told police he was unhappy with his living arrangements is accused of building a homemade bomb and setting it off Tuesday in the New Central Hotel, a borough restaurant, bar and apartment building where he lived.

The Pittsburgh Street building was evacuated immediately after the bomb exploded about 10 a.m. No one was injured, police said.

Auston Williamson, 22, was charged with arson, risking a catastrophe, reckless endangerment, criminal mischief and prohibited offensive weapons.

After his arraignment before Senior District Judge Bernice McCutcheon, Williamson was held in the Westmoreland County Jail in lieu of $250,000 bond.

Scottdale Patrolman Matthew Zelenak said he received a call describing a suspicious man with a duffel bag. The officer found Williamson sitting on a railing at a convenience store near the hotel.

"He was talking to someone on a cell phone. He said, 'They are probably here to talk to me about the bomb,'" Zelenak said.

"At that moment, I received a call about an explosion at the New Central Hotel and that a man carrying a duffel bag had been seen fleeing the building," he said.

"He admitted he made a homemade bomb and set it off on the third floor," Zelenak said.

The building, where approximately 20 tenants rent rooms, was evacuated. State police and firefighters were summoned.

Police found the makings of a homemade bomb -- plastic soda bottles, aluminum foil balls and a household cleaner -- on the hotel's third floor.

"He said he woke up this morning and decided he didn't like the accommodations he was living in. So he decided to build a bomb and blow it up," Zelenak said after taking a statement from Williamson.

He allegedly bought the ingredients at local stores yesterday, Zelenak said.

James Miller, the New Central Hotel's owner, said Williamson had been renting a room there for less than a month after a case manager with Westmoreland Casemanagement & Supports Inc. asked to rent the room for Williamson.

The agency is a service unit for the Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Program of Westmoreland County, according to its website. Administrators for the programs could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"I thought it was OK. I never dreamed of this. I usually know the people who rent here. They are usually long-term residents," Miller said.

Staff were working on the first floor during yesterday's explosion.

"We heard it big time. We thought something blew up," Miller said.

The tavern was filled with a caustic odor. "It was toxic, like ammonia," bartender Rose McFern said.

The bomb was placed atop a mattress in a hallway, Miller said. The explosion damaged the ceiling, floor and walls along the hallway.

Customers saw Williamson on the bar's surveillance camera as he ran out a back door, Miller said.

McFern said on Saturday night Williamson was heating quarters with a lighter in the bar to see if they would stick to a plastic ash tray.

McFern said she contacted a case manager after yesterday's explosion.

"I told them what he did. (A staff member) told me he called her this morning and told her what he was going to do and she thought he was delusional," McFern said.

Chad King, who works at nearby Carson's Premier Catering, said delivery drivers informed him someone was in the adjacent alley about 9:30 a.m., when Williamson was doing something with foil and pop bottles.

"I walked back there. He had this goofy look on his face. I said, 'You can't build that there.' He said, 'Oh, I won't set it off here," King said.

As the man walked by his business with a duffel bag on his shoulder, King called 911.

Zelenak said the bomb could have caused much more damage and possibly taken lives.

"They (explosive devices) are so unstable and volatile. Anything is possible," he said.

Court records show Williamson was charged by Greensburg police on Aug. 1 with public drunkenness.

On Aug. 8, state police at Greensburg filed charges of theft against Williamson.

Zelenak said Williamson requested a public defender. He will have a preliminary hearing later.

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