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VOL. 115 | NO. 203 | Thursday, November 29, 2001

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Anthrax hoaxes are no joke says Memphis FBI

Anthrax hoaxes are no joke, says Memphis FBI


The Daily News

Hoaxers beware anyone discovered sending white powder packages through the mail will face hefty charges and possible jail time.

According to the law, individuals who threaten the use of biological toxins can receive up to life in prison. Those who lie to law enforcement officials about terrorist hoaxes, and those who mail communications containing any threat to injure the addressee or any other person, can also receive up to five years in prison.

By early October, more than 2,300 cases of suspected anthrax bacteria had been reported nationwide, many of these hoaxes.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft warned: You will be caught, you will be prosecuted, and you will pay a high price for your crimes.

Robert Mueller, FBI director echoed Ashcrofts warning.

Hoaxes, pranks and threats involving chemical or biological agents are serious crimes and warrant a serious response, he said.

The Memphis field office of the FBI recorded 255 submissions since Oct. 11 when the first of the suspect packages arrived on the desks of Judge Julia Gibbons and Mayor Jim Rout.

There have been many more suspicious packages found, but the Memphis Emergency Management Agency investigated them on the scene and determined they were harmless, said FBI media coordinator George Bolds.

We get called in here when theres actually a sample collected on a call-out. There are more call-outs by the EMA and by the strike force team than there are samples taken. They show up and it turns out to be something thats identified at the scene, he said.

A submission is a sample transported by FBI agents to the public health service laboratory in Jackson, Tenn., Bolds said.

There is a public health service laboratory in Memphis but before the anthrax scare outbreak it had been shut down temporarily for renovations. Bolds said at some point he expects the Memphis lab would be operational again.

The FBIs office in Memphis has a unique role, because in cooperation with the EMA it is responsible for physically transporting the bagged samples to the laboratory in Jackson.

Memphis is the field office for the FBI in western and middle sections of Tennessee. It includes 86 agents and serves satellite offices in Nashville, Jackson, Columbia, Clarksville and Cookeville.

So far, no one has been indicted for sending hoax letters, Bolds said.

Considering that the first anthrax sample the local FBI got involved with was Oct. 11, it has been a relatively short period of time, he said.

Because the anthrax samples are collected and then sent to the lab, some of the evidence is not available for forensic testing for a couple of weeks while the lab has it. The investigations take time, Bolds said.

If you mail something to a person or if you take a white powder and bring it to your workplace and put it on your desk, that probably is a threatening communication, and says I intend it as a threat. So, there is a possibility that it would fall under a federal statute for making threatening communications, he said.

Sending something by mail makes it easy for prosecutors because it is clearly a federal offense, Bolds said.

If its not through the mail its less clear, but might still be seen as a threatening communication. Putting the powder on your desk is a nonverbal communication. It is communicating a threat to you, he said.

Lt. Tim Cook, general assignment division supervisor with the Memphis Police Department said the Memphis community has been very supportive of the situation and the department has not received any bogus calls in relation to anthrax scares.

Reports of white powder threats have been forwarded to the FBI or the postal service, but the department was not seeing any other kind of threatening activity, he said.

When it comes to threats and where people make phone calls we would still get that kind of stuff, but I havent been seeing it here. Weve been lucky, he said.

Most of our citizens understand how serious this really is, and even though we have the pranksters out there, the sort of people who pull this sort of stuff, those people also understand this is real serious stuff and people can get hurt if they try to do this sort of thing, he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday no evidence of anthrax spores was found on the premises of two Memphis facilities tested.

The Memphis Processing and Distribution Center, 555 S.Third St., and the Memphis Bulk Mail Center, 1921 Elvis Presley Blvd., showed no evidence of anthrax in the building and no evidence that contaminated or suspect mail passed through the Memphis area.

The two centers were included among more than 270 postal facilities tested as part of a national program by the U.S. Postal Service to ensure the safety of employees and customers.

Since Sept. 11, the postal service has delivered 35 billion pieces of mail nationwide. Only three of the 35 billion were confirmed to contain anthrax.

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