Annapolis buildings evacuated in scare Suspicious package turned out to be hoax in latest bomb fear

August 06, 1996|By Peter Hermann and Michael Dresser | Peter Hermann and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers William F. Zorzi Jr., Erica C. Harrington, Mike Farabaugh, John Rivera, Robert A. Erlandson and TaNoah Morgan contributed to this article.

A suspicious package stuck in a cement ashtray forced the evacuation of the State House yesterday, one of dozens of bomb scares that have hit the Baltimore area since the TWA explosion and the terrorist attack in Atlanta.

In some cases, police have found fake bombs or have received calls threatening to blow up buildings. But in many others, authorities have been alerted by people with a heightened sense of awareness about unattended packages.

"People are becoming more sensitive to suspicious things around them," said M. Stewart Allen, head of the Baltimore office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "And that's good. It's OK if we respond out to a package that turns out to be a sandwich bag."

Yesterday's scare, which closed streets in Annapolis and forced hundreds of state workers and visitors from several buildings, was termed a hoax. But the package appeared to be designed to send a message to the governor.

A tour guide dressed in Colonial garb spotted the package about 10: 20 a.m. outside a ground floor entrance where State House workers often gather to smoke. She notified a Department of General Services police officer.

Police described it as an 8-by-10-inch white envelope about a half-inch thick and wrapped in black duct tape. It had been attached to a stake and pushed into sand in the ashtray.

It was addressed to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who is on vacation in California, and contained printed material, an apparently unsoiled disposable diaper, two 6- to 10-inch pieces of aluminum wire and an alligator clip.

Members of the state fire marshal's bomb squad, using a radio-controlled robot, fired a powerful stream of water and destroyed the package. Authorities were trying to piece it together to see whether they could read the notes.

The package is being considered "a hoax device," said Capt. Greg Shipley, a Maryland State Police spokesman. But he said the case is "being treated as a criminal investigation."

State Circle and several downtown Annapolis streets were closed for 3 1/2 hours. The State House reopened at 1: 50 p.m.

Linda Dent Brown, public information officer for the Charles County school system, had driven from La Plata for a State House meeting about the governor's plans to seek volunteers to help wire state schools into the Internet.

When she arrived, she found yellow police tape blocking access to the building, so she turned away to leave. "What's sad is that it's happening all over," she said.

Federal and local authorities are reporting an increase in bomb ,, scares in the wake of the explosion that brought down the TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, N.Y., killing 230 people, and the bombing at the Olympics, which left two dead.

In Baltimore, for example, police are dealing with two bomb scares a day. Usually, they get two a week. "It seems to be a takeoff on Atlanta," said Lt. Donald E. Healy, commander of the bomb squad.

Last week in Baltimore, police asked hundreds of state office workers to evacuate 201 and 301 W. Preston St. after calls threatened to blow up the buildings. One threat came from a woman in Annapolis.

On July 30, police found a suitcase with protruding wires near the light rail tracks at Howard and Saratoga streets. The same day, a caller threatened to blow up the USF&G building on Light Street and a briefcase was found near the Central Booking and Intake Center on East Madison Street. Police found no bombs.

Two weeks ago, Healy said, workers at Baltimore's main post office X-rayed a package and discovered a fake bomb, which he described as "an elaborate hoax."

The frequency of these scares is causing considerable disruptions. Last week, a briefcase inadvertently left in the parking lot of a Catholic school near Washington forced police to close Old Georgetown Road and several exit ramps from the Capital Beltway during evening rush hour.

Baltimore County Police said they answered eight calls about possible bombs during the 17-day Olympic Games, which ended Sunday night -- twice the number for the same period a year ago.

Two bomb scares in Howard County -- a week ago and Friday -- forced evacuation of the Howard County District Court building in Ellicott City and General Medical Corp. in Elkridge.

"Obviously there are copycats -- people who get their thrills from causing disruption," said Sgt. Steven Keller, a Howard County police spokesman.

Anne Arundel County police said they haven't had any bomb threats reported since the Atlanta explosion July 27, but they reported a 135 percent increase in bomb threats after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995.

Shipley said the state police have no suspects in the State House incident. The exterior of the building is heavily monitored by security cameras, but Shipley would not disclose whether investigators had a videotape recording of the area where the package was placed.

Detectives last night tried to piece together the package -- which was obliterated by the water charge -- and possibly read what was printed.

The strong stream went off with a firecrackerlike pop and sent wads of wet paper flying against the side of the State House steps.

The so-called "disrupter" device on the robot fires water at the same velocity as a shot from a shotgun. The charge "would cut right through you," said Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor.

At 1: 30 p.m., Eric Lekberg of Chelmsford, Mass., sat on the low brick wall enclosing the State House, waiting for friends and reading "The Scorpio Illusion" by Robert Ludlum.

"It's a good one. It's about terrorism," he said. "It's tough to keep fact and fiction apart."

Pub Date: 8/06/96

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