A call about a supposed stove fire on Friday instead resulted in multiple arrests, a call for the bomb squad, hazardous materials team and county narcotics task force — and also briefly put one emergency worker in the hospital.
Firefighters arrived at a Mesa del Caballo home in the 8000 block of West Camino Real just before sunset Friday after neighbors reported hearing an explosion from within.
When crews arrived, however, they weren’t greeted with the usual thanks from the homeowner, but an order to stay away.
Houston Mesa Fire Chief Mark Essary said that refusal served as one of many red flags flying that night.
The proceeding investigation would span more than 12 hours, send one deputy to the hospital, require the bomb squad, the hazardous materials team, the county narcotics task force and haul away more than 70 marijuana plants, 30 weapons and three pipe bombs.
Authorities arrested Chris Nielson and Catherine “Catie” Everhart, both 30, on drug, weapons and child abuse charges. A judge set Nielson’s bail at $35,000.
The first sign something was amiss that night was Nielson’s reluctance to call for help, Essary said.
Nielson adamantly told neighbors not to call because everything was fine; he had a little grease fire that he had put out.
When firefighters arrived, Neilson told them to leave and to stay off his property. When Essary insisted officers had an obligation to check the home, especially with light smoke still coming from inside, Nielson relented.
He told firefighters they could check the kitchen, but definitely not the back yard or garage.
That seemed odd to Essary, especially when combined with the surveillance cameras mounted outside the modest, 1,200-square-foot home.
Inside, crews found the residue from a fire extinguisher throughout the kitchen, including on the stove and walls.
They found no pan, grease or evidence of cooking. However, crews noted a melted ceiling light along with other kitchen items. Those clues all pointed to a vapor fire, not a minor grease fire.
“He said he was in the back yard when the explosion occurred, but his story changed several times and that was another thing that was suspicious,” he said.
Nielson insisted that he put out the fire on the stove and that the fire extinguisher exploded.
“Which it didn’t, the fire extinguisher was fully intact,” Essary said, “and there was nothing to indicate food was being cooked at all.”
Then he reportedly told authorities he was in the back yard when he heard an explosion in the house.
Whatever Nielson had cooking on the stovetop was gone when firefighters went inside.
Out back, officers found a greenhouse with a dozen marijuana plants and in the garage, a full grow operation with marijuana plants, lights and chemicals. They also found 30 weapons and three improvised explosive devices in the home, said Lt. Mike Johnson with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. Officers also found six, one-gallon bags of processed marijuana.
Some of the deputies that went in the home experienced headaches, irregular heartbeat, dizziness and nausea due to a strong smell of chemicals and one went to the hospital. None were seriously injured.
“The smell of chemicals was so strong you could smell it everywhere,” Essary said, although he was not sure what chemicals were in the home.
In all, 36 personnel from seven agencies assisted, including Houston Mesa, Payson and Whispering Pines fire departments, GCSO, Payson Police Department, Lifestar Ambulance and the Department of Public Safety.
A 1-year-old child lived in the home, but was not there at the time of the explosion. Officials said he was taken somewhere safe.