An anthrax scare that targeted a state prosecutor's office, two Maryland courthouses and police stations in two other states ended yesterday when a federal judge sentenced the man responsible to 2 1/2 years in prison.
Robert Darnell Finch, 35, of Baltimore admitted that he mailed several envelopes containing a white substance and letters describing the powder as anthrax. Exposure to anthrax spores can cause a deadly disease. None of the letters contained anthrax, but they triggered precautionary action by authorities.
According to his lawyer, Finch acted out of fear. Neighborhood thugs had threatened his family, and Finch said he set the men up to protect his four children from harm.
"But he recognizes that this was an awful thing to do," defense attorney Warren Brown said after yesterday's sentencing. "He was very lucky he didn't get a longer sentence."
Federal prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg to imprison Finch for between 30 and 37 months, the length of time recommended by federal guidelines. Legg followed Brown's request that the judge sentence Finch at the low end of the advisory guidelines.
Prosecutors said they were pleased with the outcome. "Efforts to obstruct or retaliate against state and local law enforcement officials will not be tolerated," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement. "People who mail terroristic threats should be prepared to face federal prosecution and punishment."
On March 19, Finch mailed a letter lined with white powder to the state District Court in Oakland, in Western Maryland, according to court documents. The letter arrived two days later, saying: "Surprise you now have anthrax poisoning."
The courthouse was closed for the day, federal prosecutors said. Officials said all of the employees who could have had contact with the envelope were given antibiotics.
Later, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene laboratory concluded that the white powder was not anthrax. Finch mailed a similar letter to the District Court in Snow Hill.
A little more than a week later, on March 28, Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor received a similar letter in her Towson office. The letter threatened the lives of O'Connor and her family. Other extortion letters demanding money were sent to a police department in Kenai, Alaska, and a police chief and an elementary school in Jamestown, Ky.
On March 29, Finch admitted to Baltimore County Police Department detectives that he had written and mailed the letters. In October, he pleaded guilty to conveying false or misleading information threatening the use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Anthrax - with its potential to trigger epidemics - is considered a weapon of mass destruction when it is unleashed as an act of war or terrorism.