Ex-Bomb Technician Finds Escape in Magic Tricks

By Manny Gonzales

Denver Post Staff Writer

Littleton - With sleight of hand, Richard Nakata can pull an ace from a deck of cards every time. But defusing a bomb, now that's tricky.

Post / Glen Martin .

Magic tricks have always been an emotional escape from the realities of his former job as a bomb technician in the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office.

Addison Backer, 5, of Littleton gets a magic lesson from former Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Lt. Richard Nakata at Reinke Brothers costume shop.

Still, memories of bodies and pipe bombs scattered across the library at Columbine High School linger in Nakata's mind as he continues to come to terms with using pyrotechnics in his magic shows.

"I've tried to stay away from combining explosives and magic," says Nakata, 51, who was one of two deputies almost blown up by one of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's pipe bombs. "I think a lot of it has to do with what I saw at Columbine - I don't want to treat explosives lightly in front of the public."

Nakata, who retired as a lieutenant two years ago, served numerous duties, including SWAT, hostage negotiation and training supervision. But working with explosives always required the most magic.

"He used to do magic shows for the other officers, and I caught a couple of his shows," former Arapahoe Sheriff Patrick Sullivan said. "He's a great entertainer and magician who just happened to be an extremely talented officer and bomb technician."

Nakata, who was born in Tokyo to a Japanese woman and a U.S. serviceman stationed there, learned magic from his father and worked in a magic shop in Chicago at the age of 12.

A man of many talents, Nakata was introduced to law enforcement at age 16, when he was asked to help train police officers in Aurora in the martial arts. He also was a self-defense instructor for the Sheriff's Office for 12 years.

He immediately was attracted to the bomb squad, which he was involved with for 13 years. In that time, he saw many bizarre cases, such as that of a man who stole 1,000 pounds of plastic explosives and buried most of it in freezers in rural eastern Colorado.

"We had to detonate all those explosives out there, and boy, was it a heck of a blast," he said. "We were a good mile away when it went off, and we could still see it from where we were."
Nothing prepared him for April 20, 1999, after Klebold and Harris had begun their assault.

Nakata was one of 16 bomb technicians called in from police agencies throughout the metro area.

"There had to be at least 100 explosives in that school," he said. "It was pretty horrific. We were actually in the library and had to take (explosive) devices off Harris and Klebold."

Nakata and Arapahoe sheriff's Sgt. Danny Davis almost lost their lives after most of the bombs had been recovered and stored in a protective trailer.

The deputies were securing the last of the pipe bombs in the trailer when one ignited. The trailer was packed full of bombs when Nakata noticed the fuse go off.

"We jumped off the trailer, and that first detonation went off right as my feet hit the ground," Nakata said. "We had explosives all around in that trailer, and then we had a second detonation and then another."

"We had been out there working for so long that we were pretty tired around that time," Davis said. "For us, it was kind of having a whole year's worth of bomb calls in one night."

The Columbine experience contributed to Nakata's decision to retire and pursue magic as a career.

He has won awards for his magic. And these days, he performs at private parties and festivals. Recently, he performed in Chicago and Las Vegas.

Nakata also plans to put on free magic clinics for children this summer at Reinke Bros. costume shop and haunted mansion in Littleton.

"When he was on the bomb squad, he used to come in a lot and we'd talk about pyrotechnics and blowing up stuff," said Greg Reinke, who owns the shop. "He's a great magician and knows everything there is to know about bombs, but his real magic is personality. He's full of it."

Nakata still reminds aspiring magicians to proceed with caution when using pyrotechnics in their shows. He also is considering using pyrotechnics for a one-time trick in a show this summer for an organization that wants to see him make a horse disappear.

"Sure, it's a hang-up I have about using that stuff with magic," he said. "Maybe it's because I worked so closely with explosives for so long.

"You know, in the Road Runner cartoons, they had a lot of bombs in them, and poor Wile E. Coyote got blown up all the time but always walked away," Nakata said. "I've seen and known too many people who didn't get up and walk away, and that's always in the back of my mind."

Staff writer Manny Gonzales can be reached at 303-820-1173 or mgonzales@denverpost.com

Front of card Back of card is a Pierced Window Screen second half 16th century, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/453344