A Rawlins man who once worked at the Sinclair Refinery was arrested for tampering with valves there because he was trying to get the factory evacuated as a “joke.”

Bryant Paul Willingham, 27, is charged with aggravated assault and battery, terroristic threats and reckless endangerment. He faces a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

He told officers it had just been a joke.

“There were a bunch of guys joking about how they wanted to go home and stuff,” he said according to an affidavit from the Sinclair Police Department. “Nobody said specifically go do it, but a lot of them know I know the operators so you know, go turn something off and get us evacuated out of here.”

About 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 18, control instrumentation alerted watchers in the hydrocracker unit that a valve had failed or was closed. Several additional valves were found closed that day.

The valves that were closed regulated the temperature and pressure on the unit, and operators noticed the unit was filling with hydrocarbons, according to the affidavit. It took an hour to stabilize the unit.

Officers met with the plant and operations managers, who said the valves could not have turned by themselves. They would had have to have been “purposely turned to get them into the positions in which they were found,” the affidavit stated. “The valves were turned in a random fashion.”

Willingham used to work at the refinery, the affidavit stated. He was working for Williams Insulation Company at the time and had been working on the hydrocracker unit the day of the incident.

Officers heard Willingham had made statements about turning valves, but during an interview Willingham denied tampering with the equipment, the affidavit stated.

He told officers he “knew the importance of not turning random stuff,” because he used to work at the refinery and had been through operator training, the affidavit stated.

Eventually, Willingham admitted he turned two valves on the hydrocracker on the day of the incident, according to the affidavit. He showed officers the valves he turned on a map of the unit.

Ray Hanson, operations manager for the Sinclair Refinery, said one of the valves closed on the unit affected the entire operation of the unit, and if the temperature got to a certain point, it could cause a “catastrophic failure” of the machine, according to the affidavit.

If the unit had ruptured, it could have released hydrogen sulfide — a deadly gas — into the air, as well as hydrogen and oil, Hanson told officers. The oil could have vaporized and caused a fire.

The Casper Star-Tribune attempted to contact Willingham by leaving a message with a lieutenant at the jail, but Willingham did not return the call Friday.

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