Boxes of pictures stall Florida anthrax cleanup

December 12, 2004|By Luis F. Perez | Luis F. Perez,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

A treasure trove of tabloid history, including pictures of Elvis in his coffin and images of Big Foot's wedding and Bat Boy, is holding up the final stages of the anthrax cleanup at the old American Media Inc. building.

Bio-One, the firm hired to decontaminate the site of the country's first anthrax attack, said lawyers from more than one photographer called to warn them that David Rustine, who bought the building and its contents for $40,000, does not own all the pictures stored there.

So he can't order the destruction of photographs and images that graced the pages of supermarket tabloids such as the Weekly World News, Star and National Enquirer.

And government officials can't lift a quarantine placed on the building three years ago when an unknown assailant sent an anthrax-laced letter to the tabloid publisher. Decontamination plans call for incinerating the boxes and pictures inside.

"We can only do that for someone that has true ownership," said Karen Cavanagh, Bio-One's chief operating officer and general counsel.

Rustine has not answered Bio-One's questions about who owns the photographs, said John Mason, Bio-One chairman:

"One moment he owns the pictures, the next he doesn't. Until somebody tell us who really owns [the photographs] and has the authority to say so, we can't destroy the boxes."

Rustine said he has not received a phone call from any photographers or lawyers.

"There have been discussions," he said, adding that he wasn't directly involved in them.

Nonetheless, he said the ownership issue should be resolved soon, maybe within weeks.

AMI owned most of the photo archives, but there are some pictures the publisher didn't own, spokesman Gerald McKelvey said. The company had a number of inquiries from photographers about their pictures when it sold the building. The photographers were advised to contact the new owner and told they had to pay for those pictures to be decontaminated.

"Since then, we have not heard anything about this," McKelvey said.

Bio-One officials insist they will meet their target to move into the building, at 5401 Broken Sound Blvd. in the Arvida Park of Commerce, before the end of the year. Mason said of its July building decontamination: "We got a 100 percent kill."

Bio-One can decontaminate the files in the boxes just as it did the building. But nobody is willing to pay for that work because it's cheaper to destroy the boxes, he said.

The building, encircled by a chain-link fence, remains sealed, windows and doors shut tight.

The Palm Beach County Health Department quarantined the building after anthrax infected photo editor Bob Stevens, who died Oct. 5, 2001, and mailroom worker Ernesto Blanco. Blanco survived, recovered and returned to work.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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