For tabloids, threats and hate mail common

Sensational content draws many enemies

October 12, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

BOCA RATON, Fla.- As FBI investigators struggle to figure out who would deliver deadly anthrax spores into the headquarters of the country's largest tabloid publisher, some employees think a better question might be:

Who wouldn't?

"In some ways, I'm surprised somebody didn't blow up the building a long time ago," says Barry Dutter, a writer for the Weekly World News, part of America Media Inc., the company under investigation. "Certainly our papers have made a lot of enemies over the years."

With a combined readership of more than 5 million a week, the tabloids reach a lot of people - and they tick off a good number of them. Over the years the papers have been the target of celebrity lawsuits and enough mail from the irate and insane to fill a colony of UFOs. Threats and weird packages, employees say, are nothing unusual.

Federal officials have said the anthrax contamination of the AMI building, home to a chain of supermarket tabloids, was a criminal act, resulting in the death of one employee and the exposure of two others. Federal officials have found no links to the Sept. 11 terrorists, some of whom briefly lived nearby.

Whoever was responsible may have chosen the target at random. But as they continue swabbing each nook and cranny of the 65,000-square-foot building, FBI agents are enlisting the help of local firefighters and police to interview company employees and ask whether they've noticed anything suspicious. The investigators rooted through desks and scanned through e-mail. And they're asking about anyone with grudges.

"They're on our side, and they have a tough job to do," said Cliff Linedecker of the Weekly World News. "I want them to find out who did this."

The mailroom has aroused suspicion because Ernesto Blanco, 73, and Stephanie Dailey, 35, who have been exposed to the bacteria, worked there. Blanco delivered mail throughout the building and was said to be a good friend of Robert Stevens, the 63-year-old photo editor who died Oct. 5 after inhaling a lethal dose of anthrax. Traces of anthrax were found in the mailroom and on Stevens' computer keyboard, Tim Caruso, an FBI official, told members of Congress yesterday.

Identifying a particular piece of suspicious mail is likely to prove difficult, though. Ed Susman, a former writer and editor at the flagship National Enquirer, says the paper would get as many as 1,000 pieces of mail a day. "We even had our own ZIP code," he said.

Much of what arrives is wacky. The staff of the Weekly World News receives two or three letters a week from someone staffers call "Rainbow Man" because each character in his rambling missives is written in a different color. As best as anyone can tell, the author is in prison for something "pretty bad," says Linedecker, 70, the tabloid's news editor and a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who is admired by colleagues for his reportage on the exploits of a three-armed waitress.

He says the tabloids also routinely get mail from people who think they're gods, goddesses and aliens. There have been suspicious packages that, at least in one case, forced jittery employees to call 911 and evacuate the building - only to discover it was filled with chocolate chip cookies.

"The mail we get sometimes is crazy," says Jose Lambiet, gossip editor for The Star. "Sometimes you look at the envelope real well before you open it. We are an equal opportunity offender when it comes to some stuff."

Among the rich-and-famous offended are Martha Stewart, who sued the Enquirer after a story claimed she was crazy. Lisa Marie Presley settled a suit in 1999 over an article headlined "Lisa Marie Suicide Drama." Clint Eastwood won $150,000 because of fabricated quotes about his personal life. Actress Carol Burnett got $200,000 after the Enquirer hinted she was a lush.

"Some of these [stories] are tremendously hurtful," said Barry Langberg, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who has represented celebrities in their suits against tabloids. Langberg recalls Burnett calling him in tears after the Enquirer story.

Almost anyone and anything is fair game for tabloid writers. Among the most brow-raising stories in recent weeks: Osama bin Laden has "underdeveloped sexual organs," has had testosterone injections and was rejected by his American lover.

How this glamorous and star-filled resort town of 70,000 - which has an average household income of $119,000 and 22 golf courses - came to be the tabloid capital of the United States is a story unto itself. It's a city of contradiction, where appearance is king. Its manicured lawns and stringy banyan trees conceal multimillion dollar mansions. Celebrities such as Chris Evert and shampoo queen Beverly Sassoon live around here. O.J. Simpson golfs here.

A noticeable number of women sport silicone-puffed breasts and collagen-crammed lips. "This town attracts tackiness," says Thom Smith, a society columnist for the Palm Beach Post.

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