Harlan man accused of putting explosives in trail cameras

Mark Sawaf
Mark Sawaf

A licensed counselor with offices in Harlan and Lexington was taken into custody by federal authorities this week in connection with an investigation into the explosion of a trail camera that injured a man in May.

Mark Sawaf, 39, is in the Laurel County jail after ATF investigators connected him to the explosion, which caused a man to lose multiple fingers, according to an affidavit filed Wednesday. He has been charged in a complaint with possession of an unregistered firearm and making an illegal firearm.

Two trail cameras were found on a private mountain trail at the end of Red Dog Road in Harlan County sometime between late March and early April, according to court documents. The ATF was able to tie the cameras to Sawaf, but documents don’t explain what the cameras were being used for.

Trail cameras are usually affixed to trees and motion-activated to take photos of animals, such as deer. However the two cameras did not have batteries or memory cards necessary to function, records say.

The U.S. attorney’s office could not comment further on the case because the investigation is ongoing. The attorney listed for Sawaf in court files could not be reached.

However, court records reveal other details about the case: When a man tried to put batteries in one of the cameras, it detonated, causing injuries to his chest and hand. On June 6, ATF investigators were given information about the explosion, and when they inspected the second trail camera, they found another explosive device.

The device was made using a Winchester 9mm shell casing, an unknown explosive material and a detonator, according to court documents. The device was designed to explode when batteries were inserted into the camera.

The ATF had previously been told that Sawaf was involved in the use of “exploding targets,” or targets that blow up when shot with a firearm, according to court records. An investigator previously determined that since Sawaf was not prohibited from using firearms, there was no criminal violation if he was shooting exploding targets.

Sawaf didn’t own the land the cameras were found on, but he had previously been confronted for being on the property, according to court documents.

On June 16, investigators did a “trash pull” from a can that was put on the curb outside Sawaf’s Harlan house. They found copper wires like the ones used in the trail camera explosive, cut shotgun shells with thermal damage and a handwritten note that read “broken camera for a broken soul,” according to the court file.

When interviewed, Sawaf said he wrote the note after having trail cameras stolen in the past, records say. He said he was going to put the note in a broken camera and leave it out for someone to steal, according to court documents.

Investigators executed a search warrant on Sawaf’s house on June 21, according to records. They found materials consistent with what was used in the trail camera explosive; a flashlight with blast damage; and a section of PVC pipe filled with unidentified black powder, hot glue and coins, according to court documents.

Investigators also found a work bench in the home with a plastic jug containing black powder; a rock tumbler containing a suspected explosive powder; copper wires; and a handwritten note with explosive mixtures, according to court records.

Sawaf told investigators he did not make any or set off any improvised explosive devices in or around his home, records say. He said his involvement with explosives was limited to making and using exploding targets, burning gunpowder and making black powder, according to court documents.

Sawaf is scheduled to be in court on Tuesday for a preliminary hearing and a detention hearing.