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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Man pleads guilty in hash oil explosion

A 25-year-old man faces five years in federal prison after pleading guilty to sparking an explosion in January while trying to make hash oil.

Donnivan L. Whitcher told a federal judge Thursday he and a friend were using butane to leach the psychoactive element of marijuana from plants on Jan. 27 when a propane torch ignited vapor. The explosion in his kitchen at the Center Court apartments on East Cozza Drive injured two neighbors and a firefighter. At least one apartment resident was displaced.

The 2-year-old daughter of Whitcher’s girlfriend watched TV a few feet away, but wasn’t injured in the blast.

The explosion is one of several across the country where marijuana users, seeking a more potent high, endangered children by the use of combustible butane in making hash oil.

A similar explosion occurred in the Garland neighborhood in August 2013, when a man attempted to light a cigarette while using PVC pipe and a coffee filter to create hash oil, according to court records. The car he was driving exploded and he faces assault and drug charges after his 3-year-old daughter was injured in the blast. His jury trial is scheduled for January 2015 in Spokane County Superior Court.

Whitcher was arrested in June, five months after the explosion. The man who was helping him manufacture the hash oil, Eric Glatzmaier, told investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that Whitcher had been producing hash oil and selling it for a few months before the explosion.

Glatzmaier met Whitcher the night of the blast at a Wal-Mart. The two then traveled back to the apartment. Glatzmaier told investigators the smell of butane in the apartment was “very strong” when he arrived, according to court documents.

Glatzmaier said the two smoked hash oil residue in the kitchen from a bong while Whitcher’s girlfriend and the 2-year-old watched TV in the other room. The girlfriend yelled at Whitcher multiple times that he was going to burn the house down, according to Glatzmaier and neighbors interviewed by fire investigators.

The two neighbors injured by the blast suffered from heart and breathing problems shortly after the explosion. One of the men was treated for smoke inhalation and died of complications related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease two months after the blast. Investigators have not been able to determine if the explosion made his condition worse, according to court records.

Whitcher pleaded guilty to a single count of malicious use of fire Thursday, a charge that carries a mandatory minimum of five years in federal prison. He has no other felony criminal history and has been released on monitoring ahead of his sentencing, tentatively scheduled for March.

His attorney, Amy Rubin, told U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice that Whitcher has cooperated in all aspects of the investigation and that he is working at a fast-food restaurant in Spokane Valley to support his girlfriend, who is now his wife, and the toddler. Rubin said Whitcher’s crime was an accident.

No one else has been charged in connection with the explosion, and the U.S. attorney’s office agreed to dismiss the second criminal count of endangering a human life while manufacturing a controlled substance. Under federal law, marijuana is still outlawed for all uses. Washington laws allow for the manufacture of hash oil marijuana extracts, but only in pre-approved industrial areas using “closed-loop” systems that keep the butane away from fire sources.

Damage from the fire has not been officially calculated, but prosecutors believe that figure is more than $350,000, according to court documents. Under federal law, Whitcher is required to pay restitution in addition to his prison sentence.