Suspicious briefcase left by fleeing man leads to evacuation of federal courthouse Trials, grand jury halted while bag is detonated

September 27, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

From all appearances, the briefcase on the bench outside Baltimore's federal courthouse yesterday had all the markings of a bomb.

A passer-by spotted the briefcase on the bench in the plaza of the U.S. District Courthouse on Lombard Street at 11: 30 a.m. Federal agents reviewing security camera footage spotted a man putting the briefcase on the bench two hours earlier.

The man opened it, closed it and ran off. Bomb officers X-rayed the briefcase and they didn't like what they saw -- a plastic device, wire and vials of pink fluid.

About 2: 30 p.m., U.S. Marshal George K. McKinney ordered the evacuation of the courthouse. Three trials were under way. So was a grand jury proceeding and several court hearings.

Hundreds of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, secretaries and courthouse workers were herded away from the building. Streets were cordoned off. Traffic clogged downtown.

At 3: 40 p.m., the bomb squad blew up the briefcase. Smoke filled the red-brick plaza of the courthouse. A plastic box flew into the air. So did vials of fluid. Agents didn't know what to think.

"They saw that stuff popping out, and they had no idea what it was," McKinney said.

Some agents thought the plastic device was a bomb. Others thought the briefcase contained an AIDS testing kit and the vials were filled with contaminated blood.

So what was in the briefcase?

A PetroSpec Fuel Dye Analyzer, used to examine the quality of gasoline. Agents theorize that the man spotted in the security camera footage stole the briefcase, opened it on the bench and left it behind because it wasn't worth much money on the street.

"We did the right thing," McKinney said as people started to stroll back into the building about 4 p.m.

"You can't take any chances with these kinds of things."

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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