State, local officials prepared for shutdown

Police in Maryland worked on traffic plans as U.S. agents pursued threat tip

October 19, 2005|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES, JOSH MITCHELL AND LYNN ANDERSON | GUS G. SENTEMENTES, JOSH MITCHELL AND LYNN ANDERSON,SUN REPORTERS

Early Monday morning, while most of the city slept, Maryland Transportation Authority Police quietly conducted a test: They shut down and then quickly re-opened the tunnels that carry traffic under the harbor.

The operation was one of a series of preparatory steps taken by dozens of law enforcement officials behind the scenes over the past week. Their work culminated yesterday when 80 MdTA officers virtually shut down the Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels while a task force of federal investigators searched several businesses in the area.

The drama began when intelligence services received an uncorroborated tip that terrorists were planning a strike against a tunnel in the Baltimore area.

As federal investigators pursued the tip, MdTA Police Chief Gary W. McLhinney and others began plotting traffic management plans in case they would need to close the tunnels if the investigation ramped up.

By 4 p.m. Monday, with the investigation speeding up, McLhinney ordered the department's tactical operations center into action at its headquarters in eastern Baltimore County to plan for different contingencies.

Members from various law enforcement agencies, from Baltimore City and Baltimore County and the Maryland State Police, would staff the center through the night.

At 8 a.m. yesterday, McLhinney conducted a briefing with other officials at the center, laying out the plans for the various operations.

"It was a very long night last night, I have to tell you," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told CNN yesterday. Ehrlich said he spoke yesterday with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff while the operation was under way.

McLhinney made the decision to secure the tunnels about 11:30 a.m., after he learned that federal investigators had begun executing their searches and interviewing people to assess the threat, said Kevin Perkins, the FBI special agent in charge of the Baltimore field office.

Authorities feared that if terrorists were planning a strike, the searches might prompt them to launch the attacks. The businesses that were searched were all within a few miles of the tunnels.

Crews blocked lanes of traffic leading into the tunnels with dump trucks and black police cruisers, choking traffic to a trickle. From the moment he issued the order, police were able to secure the tunnels in under two minutes, McLhinney said.

Officers scrutinized vehicles as they passed, paying particular attention to tractor trailers and box trucks. More than 80 officers participated in the tunnel operation.

While traffic slowed to a crawl on the highways, about a half-dozen FBI officials strode into the Koko Market on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown a few miles away.

Richard Knott, a friend of the store's owne, Maged Hussein, said he wandered into the business, a convenience store that specializes in Middle Eastern products, and was ordered to leave by a man who identified himself as being with the FBI and who then locked the front door.

"FBI told me to get out, the store is closed," said Knott, who lives in the neighborhood. "They went in the store and threw a `Closed' sign on the door."

The authorities were there for at least two hours and put Hussein in an unmarked car, one of four that the authorities had parked in an alley behind the building, said Ed Andrews, who lives in a home on Dundalk Avenue that sits beside the alley.

Hussein was apparently brought in for questioning, but he was not of one four men held on immigration violations in connection with the federal investigation. It was not clear late last night if he was still being held.

The authorities also visited Didi's Pizzeria restaurants in Essex and Dundalk. A man identifying himself as the manager of the Dundalk store said FBI agents showed up about noon, ordered that it be locked and spent several hours asking detailed questions about the employees. The man said the agents did not say why they were at the store.

About six agents also spent several hours at the Didi's in Essex, which is in a small brick building on South Marlyn Avenue that also includes a seafood restaurant and a hair stylist.

Francis Wayland, who owns the building in Essex, said about a half-dozen FBI agents searched the store. Whenever the phone rang, they would answer it, she said.

They even searched three grease barrels behind the building, she said.

"What they were searching for, I have no idea," she said. She said no one was picked up for questioning by the authorities.

Wayland, 80, said she talked to Madhat Mohomed Sharalla, one of two men on the shop's lease, last month. He told her he had to go to Egypt for three months, she said.

The Essex store has been closed for several days, she said.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm said that city and Baltimore County police officers assisted federal officials on six separate occasions to contact suspects.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.