Caldwell business survives legal battles over fireworks sales, domestic terrorists

A Caldwell family's business survived years of legal battles over firework sales, and then it was targeted by domestic terrorists in 2011

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comJuly 1, 2013 

Dennis Heck is an owner of Rocky Mountain Fireworks & Fur Co. in Caldwell.

CHRIS BUTLER — Chris Butler/Idaho Statesman Buy Photo

  • STILL LOOKING FOR LEADS

    In the months after the fire, authorities investigated a number of tips and leads. Anyone who noticed unusual activity or suspicious behavior near Rocky Mountain in the days or weeks leading up to the fire can call the Canyon County Sheriff's Office at 454-7251.

    OTHER ALF ACTS

    The North American Animal Liberation Front Press Office posts communiques from anonymous activists. Here are some of their actions in the Northwest since the Caldwell attack in 2011.

    Æ October 2011: Mink released from Gifford, Wash., farm.

    Æ November 2011: Mink released from Astoria, Ore., farm.

    Æ November 2011: Train-line sabotage in southern Oregon.

    Æ January/February 2012: Hens, chickens taken from Oregon's Willamette Valley and Washington state farms.

    Æ March 2012: Pheasants released from Scio, Ore., farm.

    Æ May 2012: Hens removed from egg farms in Willamette Valley.

    Æ September 2012: Pheasants released from farm in Canby, Ore.

  • ANIMAL LIBERATION FRONT TOPS LIST OF DOMESTIC TERRORISM

    There were 127 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 2002 and 2012, according to data compiled in the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

    A majority were carried out by the Earth Liberation Front, the Animal Liberation Front and anti-abortion activists, the study said.

    A 2012 Congressional Research Service report said many of the crimes committed by animal-rights extremists and eco-terrorists are perpetrated by independent small cells or individuals.

    "These cells or lone actors engage in crimes such as vandalism, theft, the destruction of property and arson," the report said.

    The FBI tallied more than 1,800 incidents by animal-rights extremists and eco-terrorists between 1979 and 2009. The estimated cost of the damage: $110 million.

    Farms and university research facilities have been popular targets in the West. Federal investigators said a Eugene, Ore., group of ELF and ALF members who called themselves "The Family" set 20 fires at a slaughterhouse, ski resort, horse corrals, lumber mills and federal offices across the West between 1996 and 2001.

    Just two of 13 members of The Family remain fugitives - Joseph Dibee and Josephine Overaker. One member of the group, Rebecca Rubin, turned herself in to the FBI in December.

It's been more than a year and a half since animal rights extremists torched a business near Caldwell that sells coyote, bobcat, muskrat and other pelts. No one has been arrested in connection with the crime.

The Sept. 26, 2011, fire did about $30,000 in damage to a storage building and contents - primarily trapping equipment and supplies - at Rocky Mountain Fireworks & Fur Co. Owners Dennis and Chris Heck weren't insured.

The perpetrators tried to burn down the main building by drilling a hole, pouring gasoline inside, then placing an ignition device timed to go off after they left. But the fire didn't spread to the interior of the building.

"Where they drilled the hole, there was enough fireworks to burn the building down," Dennis Heck said.

The act of domestic terrorism was as destructive psychologically as it was to the Hecks' property. Their 29-year-old daughter, Jessi, who manages the store, admits to lingering trepidation when she arrives for work each day.

"The thought does cross my mind when I unlock the doors and come in," she said. "It's scary. There's wackos out there. They think what they're doing is OK."

The North American Animal Liberation Front press office disseminated a statement from a group calling itself The Arson Unit claiming responsibility for the attack.

Dennis Heck resents the ALF's promotion of terrorist acts on its Web site. Since his Canyon County store was set ablaze in fall 2011, the ALF has posted information about more than 40 other acts across the country, such as releasing mink and other animals, vandalizing fur stores, sabotaging hunting equipment and harassing people in the fur trade or animal research or testing.

The Arson Unit concluded its anonymous communique to the Hecks with an ominous threat: "By oppressing innocent life, you've lost your rights. We've come to take you down a notch. Stay in business, and we'll be back."

On June 1, the ALF put mink farmers across the country on notice with an updated online guide to raiding farms and freeing mink. The guide, "The Final Nail #4," provides animal rights activists with the names and addresses of mink farmers nationwide, including 30 in Idaho.

FAMILY BUSINESS SPANS DECADES

Interstate travelers and other first-time visitors who stop at Rocky Mountain Fireworks & Fur - the word "fur" and an image of a coyote were removed from highway billboards after the fire - find an eclectic mix of items.

The "fur" business also features rabbit's foot keychains, fur hats, animal skulls and mounts. The fireworks fill two large rooms - one has so-called Idaho-permitted "safe and sane fireworks," the other has out-of-state fireworks that shoot high in the sky.

The fur-and-fireworks combination is unique, reflecting the background and interests of the proprietors. They also complement each other.

"Fur keeps us busy in the winter, and fireworks in the summer," Heck said.

Dennis Heck, 64, was born in Nampa and graduated from Caldwell High in 1968. His father owned and operated the Hilltop Market and Hilltop Drive-in on property near Exit 26 of Interstate 84 - where Rocky Mountain Fireworks & Fur Co. is today - and later got into mobile home and used car sales.

Heck worked for his dad, selling and delivering mobile homes. He and his wife, who raised four daughters, sold fireworks on a seasonal basis out of a tent for a decade before breaking ground on a building in 1980.

So how did fur sales become part of the business?

Heck and his brother grew up hunting coyotes and bobcats, and they'd sell what they caught to a neighbor - who would skin, stretch, dry and clean the pelts before selling them to a local buyer.

"He'd take half," said Heck, who later decided he wanted to do the buying and re-selling himself.

High demand has pushed prices up. Heck said muskrat pelts were up to $11 each last year, coyote pelts sold for around $60, and bobcats ranged as high as $1,200.

Most of the fur ends up as trim inside coats. The manufacturers buying it are in other countries, including Greece, Russia and China, Heck said.

FIREWORKS STAND SHUT DOWN

The Heck family was in a protracted battle with Canyon County to sell fireworks.

In 1990, county commissioners outlawed the sale of fireworks in unincorporated areas. The Hecks kept operating until they were shut down by the sheriff's office.

"They did that three or four times. They confiscated my fireworks twice," Heck said. He was cited several times for the sale of dangerous fireworks, according to Idaho court records.

The Hecks argued that the ban was invalid because state law regulating fireworks said only cities can enact more restrictive measures.

They appealed the decision; the Idaho Court of Appeals upheld the county ban.

"I lost and cried and didn't know what to do," Heck said.

He spent $75,000 or $80,000 on attorneys fees. It hurt, but he appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court.

The decision came down almost a year later. The Supreme Court ruled that state law pre-empts county ordinances governing rural fireworks sellers.

"We were overwhelmed," said Heck, who keeps a framed copy of the article about that decision in his office.

The Hecks also have been at odds with state and local lawmakers over the sale of fireworks that are illegal in Idaho. Sellers call those firecrackers, bottle rockets and Roman candles "out-of-state" fireworks, and buyers must sign off that they will not use them in Idaho.

Authorities say some Idahoans buy the fireworks to use in the state, falsifying the document they sign. Lawmakers' efforts to restrict sales of those fireworks have been unsuccessful.

"People want to have fun," he said of fireworks. "If they're misused, they're misused. If handled properly, they're beautiful."

Despite decades of clashes with lawmakers and law enforcement, Heck doesn't consider himself a rebel.

"I'm a businessman, strictly a businessman," he said. "I've done very well."

INVESTIGATION INTO FIRE CONTINUES

The FBI, ATF and Canyon County Sheriff's Office are investigating the fire at Rocky Mountain.

Canyon County Lt. Christopher McCormick said the sheriff's office has two investigators, including himself, still working the case.

"I want to get closure for Heck and his family," he said. "I understand his frustration that we haven't made an arrest, but it's certainly not for lack of effort."

Deborah Bertram, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Salt Lake City, declined to offer any details or updates. A call to the ATF was not returned.

McCormick believes that the Animal Liberation Front has Treasure Valley connections, though he said it's possible the target was random. The week of the fire, two large events drew people from all over the Northwest, including a protest against animal cruelty.

"Everybody messes up at some point. At some point, somebody is going to talk, somebody is going to leak," McCormick said.

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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