Today’s news:

Grenade launchers AWOL from St. John’s army depot

Federal and local law enforcement officials were looking for two M203 grenade launchers missing from a U.S. Army depot located in Jamaica in a building owned by St. John’s University, said Army officials.

The 10-inch grenade launchers are a subsystem that cannot be used unless they are attached to an appropriate rifle or machine gun and loaded with a particular type of ammunition, said Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division. They were discovered to be missing from their home station at 168-10 Goethals Ave. at the end of June.

“Right now we have uncovered no evidence of malice or any evidence of terrorist involvement,” said Raimondi. “What we have discovered is an inventory discrepancy. It could be theft, but it could also be that it’s in the arms room of another unit.”

Raimondi emphasized that the ammunition for the grenade launchers is not available on the civilian market, and that the subsystem is useless without being assembled onto a rifle like the M16 rifle.

“There is little or no danger that these things could be used for any type of incident,” said Raimondi.

However, Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Flushing) was not convinced that the missing grenade launchers are of no threat to the public.

    “This is an absolute outrage,” he said. “To think that in a residential area, with a large, high-risk Orthodox Jewish community and home to a university with 20,000 students, this deadly device may have been stolen, is mind-boggling. How can anyone sleep securely at night, go to the synagogue or to school worrying that an M-203 launcher, used by terrorists, was in their neighborhood unprotected?”

Major Tim Walter, a professor of military science for the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at St. John’s University, said the university’s ROTC has no affiliation with the U.S. Army depot other than sharing the building with them.

“I have no clue (where the grenade launchers are),” said Walter. “We share the same building. Besides that we have nothing to do with them.”

Jody Fisher, a spokesman for St. John’s, said the university has leased part of its property on Goethals Avenue, adjacent to the student campus, to the Army for 50 years. The building shared by St. John’s ROTC and the Army is surrounded by a high chain link fence with barbed wire on the top and is not accessible to any student or faculty unless they have special permission from the ROTC, said Fisher.

“We don’t have access to any of the areas that house those weapons,” said Fisher. “St. John’s ROTC students never have access to or train with those weapons.”

Major Berne Zoller, the chief of public affairs for the Army’s 77th Regional Readiness Command, said the grenade launchers had been mobilized for Operation Mobile Eagle and Operation Enduring Freedom —two operations involved with the global war on terrorism.

The grenade launchers, which can fire as far 440 yards, were shipped to Fort Stewart in Georgia in March, and were returned to their home base in Queens some time in May, said Zoller. They were used by Army soldiers for qualification courses in which soldiers are tested on how qualified they are to launch grenades at targets.

The grenade launchers were kept in an arms room with a double lock system and electronic monitoring devices, said Zoller. There were no signs that the room has been broken into, he said.

Raimondi said it is not unusual for weapons to come up missing.

“This is far from a one-time incident,” he said. “We take it very seriously. We look into it and we generally figure out what in fact happened.”

The Criminal Investigations Division is currently working with sister law enforcement agents at the local levels to try to locate the weapons, said Raimondi.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.

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