Fortunately for all involved, Atkins, who was 25 at the time, changed his mind about releasing the radioactive material, which has the potential to kill or maim people after brief exposures. Following a standoff at his home near 4200 North 32nd Street, he was captured and the material was recovered.
On Thursday, Atkins was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. He'll serve the federal time after he completes a 3.5-year sentence he already received in state court. U.S. District Judge John Tuchi also sentenced Atkins to 12 years of supervised probation after he completes his prison term.
The outcome for Atkins and others could have been much worse. He had several half-baked plans for the three Delta Projectors he stole, which are normally used to x-ray objects underground and contain iridium-192. Close-contact exposure to the material for just one hour would cause extreme pain and disfigurement, and for 50 percent of the victims, death within a month, federal court records state. Injuries can also occur with far briefer exposures. Atkins had the potential to endanger "hundreds of lives."
Up until the incident, Atkins had been a law-abiding, successful young man — a model of someone who had grown up with disadvantages and overcome them. Court records describe how he grew up in Gallup, New Mexico, facing societal "rejection" because he was half-Native American and half-Black, and became extremely close to his siblings, especially an older sister who was the prime caretaker of the household.
When Atkins was 11, the sister committed suicide; he and his brother found her body hanging in a closet. Despite his disturbed childhood, Atkins was determined to make something of his life. After he graduated from high school he attended Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and earned a certificate in Non-Destructive Testing Technology & Quality Control Management, records state. He got hired by Western Technologies in Phoenix and worked there for six years, advancing in his training to become a "Level 2 technician."
"He served as the primary maintenance technician for the radiological devices," and was trained to open and repair them, records say. Yet, "Atkins’s dangerous dark side contrasts with his exterior appearance of being capable and successful."
In the weeks before his dangerous spree, he fought with his girlfriend and pulled a knife on her. He texted his sister a few days before the attack that he "felt like he was drowning in everything, his relationship, family and bills," and that he was thinking about driving his Jeep "into a house," "stabbing a cop," or committing "suicide by cop." The FBI later found holes in his home's walls and broken knives scattered about.
He drove to Western Technologies, which was closed, entered the building with his employee code, put three 60-pound Delta Projectors and the tools to take them apart on a cart, and wheeled them out to load them into his vehicle. He called his girlfriend and sister to tell them of his plans for a "last stand." He contemplated forcing his way into a co-worker's home and stealing an AR-15, he told her, but decided against it. At about 3 a.m., he sent an ominous text to his fellow employees: "There’s no easy way to say this, guys, I have snapped. I have three sources. Stay home til they are found."
Atkins drove to Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall, apparently intending to spread some iridium-192 around. But it was only 6 a.m., and the mall was closed. He drove north to the Mount Ord area near Payson.
"At Mt. Ord, he opened one of the radiological devices to get the radioactive material out of the unit and then threw it out of the car. Atkins planned to place the radiological devices so they would be impossible to find," records state. "Atkins also planned to take the Iridium-192 out and spread it around placing himself in the middle. Atkins knew he would be irradiated, but he did not care because he planned on dying. When the police engaged him, they would also be irradiated."
He changed his mind again, putting the radioactive material back in its container, and driving with the material back to his home in Phoenix, where the two-hour standoff occurred before he gave up.
Atkins has a young daughter and plans to learn to be a chef in prison, according to a sentencing memorandum by his federal public defenders, Jon Sands and Gregory Bartolomei.
The 15-year sentence "sends a powerful message of deterrence to would-be criminal actors who plan to weaponize industrial technologies," said Acting Arizona United States Attorney Anthony Martin. "As was done in this case, we stand ready to work alongside our federal and state partners to respond quickly to any threats to public safety."
Western Technologies did not respond to a request for comment.