Eastern-looking shoppers rattle town

Strangers buy knives from Oakland Wal-Mart

Terrorism Strikes America

September 30, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND - It was three days after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington when the Aisle 13 checkout clerk at the local Wal-Mart got seriously spooked by a group of customers who bought knives and box cutters and seemed, to the store's employees, to be of Middle Eastern descent.

Probably, local authorities say, there's no reason for concern. But, these days, even in far Western Maryland - in the 1,900-resident seat of relatively isolated Garrett County - incidents that once wouldn't have provoked a second thought mushroom into full-blown nightmares or become fodder for creative conspiracy theories.

The jitters emanating from the purchases Sept. 14 at the local Wal-Mart are symptomatic of an unease here that mirrors the discomfort felt in much larger cities considered to be more likely terrorist targets.

The lesson: Vulnerability isn't about where you live, but how you feel. Oakland residents - and not just Wal-Mart clerks - are edgy.

"I never locked my door before, but now I will," says town Police Chief John K. Sines. "It's not paranoid, just cautious."

It matters little that Garrett County, where splashes of fall color are visible in scenic rolling hills, would seem too remote for a terrorist scare, let alone attack. Just as in New York and Washington, officials here have shifted their routines to accommodate the perceived threat: from making sure buildings are locked at the local reservoir to suspending public uses of the armory in Oakland.

Naylor's True Value, the town's largest hardware store, was instructed by police to be vigilant about sales of piping that could be used to make bombs. "I worked the register and a customer said, `You don't know where you're safe today,' " says Donna Broadwater, a Naylor's administrative assistant. "A lot of people are leery about going places and doing things."

And then there's the matter of the Wal-Mart, where the clerk's story goes like this:

It was a Friday night, Sept. 14, and the county was preparing for its annual "Autumn Glory" music and arts festival in early October. The festival is one of this tourist area's biggest draws of the year, and the main street of Oakland, home to a restored, 117-year-old train station, was decorated with gold bunting. After the Sept. 11 attacks, merchants had added American flags to the mix.

Then, into the Oakland Wal-Mart, according to reports made to police, walked four men "of Eastern descent," speaking in a foreign language. The store's employees said they bought what seemed a "strange" selection - a knife, three box cutters, four pairs of boots, one toboggan and a coat.

About 40 minutes later, two of the men returned and bought another knife, a hammer, two pairs of boots and another coat. Again, they paid in large bills.

The Wal-Mart manager, Shannon Moon, knows that the incident at his store has taken on a life of its own in the course of its persistent retelling over the past two weeks.

"I think there are some things said that maybe are false," says Moon.

"This is a small community. I go to pick up my dry cleaning and the lady says, `There was some excitement at Wal-Mart,' and she said there were arrests made. I told her that no, there weren't" arrests.

But there was surveillance tape taken at the Wal-Mart. And local police say it was sent to the nearest FBI office in Frederick, about 130 miles away.

In Frederick, FBI Agent Lane Betts could not be reached for comment. But Oakland city officials say the tape seemed grainy, perhaps not even sharp enough to firmly identify facial features of those making the purchases.

The initial reaction of the local police to the report was surprise.

"I said, `Are you serious? Why would they come to the middle of nowhere in Garrett County?' " asks Sines, the police chief.

He says there is little known about the purchasers, and he is urging people not to be alarmed.

At this point, he says, officials and residents in this normally placid place in the woods might never know who the buyers were or whether they intended any harm, and it does little good to speculate.

"The FBI said it's possible they could be Hispanics coming through. It could be anything," says Oakland Mayor Asa McCain.

McCain says the buyers - based on their timing and odd shopping list - might have simply been trying to scare people.

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