Anthrax scare at SN&R

Local man sent ‘dummy spray’ of toxin, urged publication of his book excerpts

Kel Munger, SN&R’s editorial assistant, tells her story to officers from the Sacramento Police Department who work undercover with the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Kel Munger, SN&R’s editorial assistant, tells her story to officers from the Sacramento Police Department who work undercover with the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It might have been a bad joke. It might have been a flawed publicity stunt. But when an SN&R staffer opened up a letter addressed to the paper’s former editor, Tom Walsh, and found a story pitch sharing space with a small aerosol can labeled anthrax, this brazen act of self promotion became much more: It became a federal case.

The first sign of anything unusual happening just before noon on January 24 was a lone fire truck parked in front of the paper’s offices on 20th Street.

Already, Kel Munger, the paper’s editorial assistant, was explaining to firefighters how she had snatched the envelope out of the downstairs mail bin because she was hoping for a specific book. When she ripped it open in her upstairs cube, she found a different book on CD and a letter inside: “Don’t think terrorism’s dead just because Osama bin Laden is cornered somewhere in Afghanistan.”

The writer, who signed his name and gave a local address and phone number, wanted Walsh to publish excerpts of his book, Munger said. She speculated that he must not have been a regular reader or he would have known that Walsh had left SN&R a year and a half earlier. “Either that, or he’s just incredibly stupid,” she said.

Munger was about to put the envelope aside when she felt something round at the bottom. She thought it was a promotional pen so she upturned the envelope and let the cylindrical object fall into her palm. It was an old, metal aerosol can with a homemade label reading “anthrax.” The label included an orange and black biohazard symbol.

Munger laughed at first. She was holding a hoax in her hands, right? But as she walked over to Editor Nancy Brands Ward’s office, she was struck by the fact that the threat could be real. Her adrenaline started pumping.

Ward didn’t take any chances. As she called the police, the paper’s co-owner Deborah Redmond pulled up the company policy for anthrax scares: wash hands with soap and water, place the item in plastic, seal off the area. SN&R’s small anti-terrorism team sealed off the editorial offices immediately.

The city of Sacramento Fire Department arrived first, and in the time it took Munger to tell her story, more than a dozen men in uniform followed: local police officers, hazardous-materials experts, the FBI and anyone else who had a stake in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a multi-jurisdictional response team. Outside, caution tape was wrapped around the building and strategically parked trucks marked the perimeter.

Inside the perimeter, task-force members took a moment to struggle with a policy question: how to keep the media away from this one. Newspaper people were supposed to be kept at arm’s length, but they were the ones huddled in the doorway and calling their families from cell phones. This was not exactly business as usual.

Though anthrax hasn’t been in the news lately, numerous members of the team, including FBI Special Agent Tim Lester, confirmed that false threats continue to occur periodically, but rarely are discussed because that might inspire copycat crimes.

While teams of experts traipsed up and down the stairs, hazmat specialists could be glimpsed through Ward’s office window. They were wearing face masks and gloves and leaning over an office chair on which the letter, wrapped in plastic, had been laid.

Occasionally, task-force members asked Munger if she was having trouble breathing. She wasn’t. Nor did she get anything powdery on her hands. Nor was the can sticky or leaking. Though one team member hinted that the can appeared to be empty, Lester neither confirmed nor denied it. “That’s pure speculation,” he said.

While employees huddled on the bottom floor, imagining a stooped over Unabomber type in a paper shack preparing an army of canisters for unsuspecting news editors, officers descended the stairs whispering that it was nothing serious. While the material was whisked away for final testing, the danger began to seep away and the yellow caution tape was removed.

In the afternoon, Munger received a call from Sacramento County Health Officer Glennah Trochet. The coast was clear. There was no sign of anthrax in the can, but the contents, if there were any, remain a mystery.

The man who sent the package remained a mystery, as well, because staffers bagged the letter even before copying down the name or contact information. The Joint Terrorism Task Force refused to let SN&R tag along on their investigation. “The FBI doesn’t do ride-alongs,” Lester said.

Lester did say that under the hoax statute, even an empty canister might constitute a felony. If somebody sends mail that makes people reasonably believe they’re in danger, they could be sentenced for up to five years.

On Friday morning, FBI spokeswoman Special Agent Karen Twomey Ernst called SN&R with an update. The jokester was none other than Marc Keyser, who had been the topic of a 2002 cover story on his fund-raising efforts to protect the water system in Elk Grove from terrorist attacks (see “Terror-able water,” SN&R Cover Story, October 17, 2002).

Ward even received an e-mailed apology from Keyser: “Sorry about the misunderstanding. I sent you the dummy spray of anthrax to alert you to the danger of an Anthrax Terror Attack in Los Angeles at McDonald’s and Wal-Marts in shopping centers that triggers mass hysteria in a population of 10,000 unvaccinated commuters in rush hour traffic turning L.A. into a death trap which triggers mass panic in every city in America (including Sacramento) sending 290,000 million unvaccinated inhabitants in rush hour traffic to the nearest hospital and turns cities into death traps, crashing the stock market, collapsing the economy—not to trigger mass hysteria in your office.

“The FBI showed up at my door and said it caused a bit of a scare. We had a nice chat. They and their families are not vaccinated. But they carry guns.”

Ernst said there would be no further investigation or prosecution.

Meanwhile, Munger has regained her sense of humor. She quipped that this might be the worst example of an eye-catching query letter she’s ever come across.