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Men linked to fireworks operation charged with murder after house explosion killed four

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Updated at 5:30 p.m. Sunday with comments from the family of Damario Cooks.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY — Two men accused of backing a bootleg fireworks operation have been charged with murder in Friday’s house explosion near Black Jack that killed a man and three teenagers.

Terrell Cooks, 37, and Seneca Mahan, 43, are accused of providing materials to create explosive powder that would be loaded into fireworks canisters at the home at 6680 Parker Road, court documents say.

Terrell Cooks

Terrell Cooks

Cooks and Mahan are charged with three counts of second-degree murder and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. Both also face weapons charges.

The Post-Dispatch first reported Friday that investigators believed firework explosives were behind the deadly blast that shook homes for blocks. An adult, authorities allege, had been showing the teens how to load the canisters and attach fuses.

St. Louis County prosecutors filed the charges Saturday before a fourth victim died and likely will amend the counts to include a fourth murder charge.

Two of the four killed lived in the home: Damario Cooks, 18, and his cousin Travell Eason, 16. The cousins were friends with the other two who died, Christopher Jones, 17 and William Jones, 21, according to police and family members.

Damario Cooks’ 12-year-old brother also was injured by a falling brick after the explosion, family members said.

The explosion leveled a garage and demolished the four-bedroom brick home where Damario Cooks lived with his mother, three brothers, cousin and uncle. The blast shook nearby homes and blew out some neighbors’ windows. Debris rained down on a street more than a block away.

Investigators with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives uncovered evidence that numerous boxes of a chemical compound had been ordered online, authorities told the Post-Dispatch.

Seneca Mahan

Seneca Mahan

Federal investigators saw Terrell Cooks moving boxes of chemicals used to make explosives to his vehicle later on Friday, authorities said. They searched another residence and vehicles connected to Terrell Cooks and found “large quantities of completed explosive weapons and components to manufacture them,” police said.

‘I had to get out’

Heather Seaman, Damario Cooks’ mother who lives in the home, said she was in a bathroom about 1:20 a.m. when she heard an enormous boom and was thrown about 5 or 6 feet by the blast.

Her older son, Diamonte Cooks, 19, was in a nearby bedroom and ran to guide her out from flames quickly engulfing the home, knocking down burning debris as they tried to get out.

Outside, Diamonte Cooks tried to pull several severely injured people away from the building, including his younger brother, Damario, he said.

“I held his hand and told him to hold on,” Diamonte Cooks said. “I just wiped his tears and watched him breathe his last breath, and I had to get out then.”

Diamonte Cooks had to then hold his mother back from trying to return into the flames to look for her sons, he said.

Seaman, said she is devastated and asked investigators not to jump to conclusions about what caused the explosion.

She said she knew there were fireworks in the home but said the teens were not assembling them that night, and she did not know about any business selling them.

Earlier in the evening, she said her son and the others killed had all gone to a gun range to celebrate Damario Cooks’ recent 18th birthday, and they were all hanging out in the garage playing games when she went upstairs.

One of the men charged, Terrell Cooks, is the uncle of Damario Cooks, and Mahan is a longtime family friend, family members told the Post-Dispatch.

“I just hope the police are open minded and really try to find the truth, whatever that is,” she said. “I hope they don’t go off hearsay and find out why my son and these babies lost their lives.”

Demario Cooks, Eason and Christopher Jones all attended Hazelwood Central High School, according to Demario Cooks’ family.

“They were all good kids,” Seaman said. “They weren’t disrespectful, they were kind and none of them deserved this.”

Fireworks operation

Terrell Cooks and Mahan, both of St. Louis, are being held in the St. Louis County jail in lieu of cash bail of $350,000 each.

According to charging documents, Terrell Cooks wasn’t at the house when it exploded. But several witnesses told police that he was one of the “leaders of the manufacturing process” in the garage.

Court records say Terrell Cooks admitted to investigators that he and Mahan made “ground salutes,” fireworks launched from the ground that make a loud bang and bright flash. Charges allege that he directed the teenagers how to load the canisters and attach a fuse for lighting. They contained an explosive charge “far in excess” of Missouri’s legal limits, court documents say.

The men would then sell the fireworks to a third party, police said. Neither Cooks nor Mahan had a license to make or sell fireworks.

Cooks lives in the 5600 block of Greer Avenue, and Mahan lives in the 4100 block of Farlin Avenue, according to police.

Cardboard canisters for fireworks litter yard after house explosion

Cardboard canisters, shown here on Sunday, June 19, 2022, litter the yard among rubble where a house exploded Friday at 6680 Parker Road near Black Jack. Photo by Kim Bell of the Post-Dispatch staff.

The blast came 17 days before the Fourth of July holiday. On Sunday morning, numerous cardboard canisters colored red, white and blue still littered the yard on Parker Road. They were among the rubble at the property, along with children’s bicycles, clothing, basketballs and a backpack.

County records show the house is owned by a property management services company based in Marietta, Georgia.

As first reported by the Post-Dispatch on Friday, Ankeneth Corbin, chief of the Black Jack Fire Protection District, told the newspaper: “They were teenagers and kids visiting, and they were trying to make fireworks. If you buy 50 pounds of any explosive, you have just created a bomb.

“Electrostatic, anything, can cause a spark,” Corbin added.

Corbin said he hoped the tragic outcome could be a teachable moment, showing the devastating and deadly consequences of handling and making fireworks.

Next-door neighbor Nichole Thomas heard the explosion and came outside to see several people running in the yard between her home and the one on fire.

“The fire was so big,” she said. “The house is on fire, there’s people running everywhere, kids. ... There was one little boy, I didn’t know if he lived there or not, but he just kind of darted across. I said, ‘Honey, come here.’”

The boy looked at Thomas but kept running. He appeared to be about 6 or 7 years old, she said.

Rescuers set up a triage station of sorts on a driveway across the street, on North Ranch Drive.

“It was pure chaos,” she said.

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