Threatening letter leads to evacuation of City Hall

Four judges at courthouse also receive threats

March 16, 2010|By Julie Scharper and Tricia Bishop | Baltimore Sun reporters

A spate of threatening letters - some containing bullets and white powder - have been delivered to Baltimore City Hall and the city circuit courthouse in recent days, prompting a joint investigation by city police and U.S. Postal inspectors.

City Hall was evacuated for about 40 minutes Monday afternoon after a clerk opened a letter containing white powder that police later determined to be harmless, said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

Four letters, including at least two with bullets enclosed, also were sent to judges at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. courthouse on Friday and Monday, authorities said.

Judge M. Brooke Murdock, head of the criminal division, said that an employee in her office opened a letter Monday that contained both powder and a bullet.

"Judges on the Baltimore City Circuit Court have their lives threatened all the time," Murdock said. But "not quite like this," she added. "This is pretty dramatic."

Murdock alerted police, who immediately sent a hazardous materials team to inspect the letter. Officers determined that the powder was likely talcum, she said.

The police declined to comment on the contents of the letters, other than to say that the one delivered to City Hall contained an innocuous white powder. Investigators are conducting DNA analysis on the letters and envelopes, which were all sent by priority mail, Guglielmi said.

Police believe that other letters may have been sent and are "actively trying to search the buildings to see if there are additional envelopes," he said. Security remains at usual levels, Guglielmi said.

The danger judges face was highlighted five years ago when, in the space of two weeks, a defendant killed an Atlanta judge in his courtroom and a man whose medical malpractice suit had been dismissed by a federal judge in Chicago murdered her husband and mother.

In addition to Murdock, letters were sent to Judge Wanda K. Heard and Administrative Judge Marcella M. Holland and another judge, whose name has not been released, according to Angelita Plemmer, a spokeswoman for the court system. It is unclear why the four judges were targeted.

Judges Heard and Holland referred questions to Plemmer, but they discussed the matter with each other in an e-mail exchange Friday, according to messages obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

In the first message, Heard complained of a security breakdown.

"The mail should have been scanned. Obviously, it wasn't," she wrote, describing how her law clerk found a bullet and a "threatening note" warning her about things she "might touch or even eat."

The mayor was "referenced in 'my' note" and received a "similar threat today too," Heard wrote.

Guglielmi and Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, declined to specify the contents of the letter that arrived at City Hall.

"It's certainly unsettling," said O'Doherty, adding that the office does not discuss changes to security measures.

The City Hall letter was discovered about noon, and the clerk notified an on-site police officer who called 911, said Fire Department spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright.

A hazardous materials team arrived at City Hall, and the building was evacuated within about 10 minutes, according to Cartwright. The package was found to be harmless, and employees returned to work about 12:40 p.m., Cartwright said.

In 2005, Sandra O'Connor, the then- Baltimore County state's attorney, received mailings containing a white substance, as did district court offices in Oakland in Western Maryland and in Snow Hill on the Eastern Shore. Accompanying letters described the substance as anthrax, a deadly virus that can be spread by spores.

A Baltimore man, Robert Darnell Finch, pleaded guilty to conveying false or misleading information threatening the use of a weapon of mass destruction in those incidents and was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in federal prison in 2006.

A number of letters containing anthrax touched off a nationwide panic shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Five people died and 17 were injured after they had contact with the letters, which were sent to two U.S. senators and several news organizations.

The FBI declared the investigation into the anthrax attacks closed after researcher Bruce E. Ivins committed suicide in 2008. Ivins, who worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, was considered the sole suspect in the case, according to the FBI.

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