Toilet with phone, notes left outside Towson court found to be harmless

Police say they have suspect in case that prompted bomb scare

February 07, 2011|By Yeganeh June Torbati, The Baltimore Sun

Part of central Towson came to a standstill Monday morning — for a toilet.

The porcelain toilet — festooned with newspaper clippings, an electronic transmitter and a cell phone — was left outside the historic Baltimore County courthouse about 8 a.m., triggering a police reaction that included a bomb-sniffing dog and a small robot.

Workers from nearby businesses streamed out to watch as police closed nearby streets, including the 400 block of Washington Ave., near the intersection with Pennsylvania Avenue.

Michael Minervini, who works at the M&T Bank branch on Washington Avenue, said employees were confused and worried as they watched police investigate the package and the robot approach the toilet. "Certainly, any time you put a mysterious package or item or whatever around a government building, you're going to be maybe scrutinized a little closer," he said.

The incident came after last month's discovery of several incendiary devices addressed to Gov. Martin O'Malley and Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, the state's secretary of transportation. Those packages produced odors and smoke when opened by postal workers, who were not seriously hurt, and shut down government mailrooms in state buildings for a time.

Monday's incident shows how vigilant security officials and the public have become on potential threats, said Ellen Cornelius, a law and policy analyst with the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security. "I think people have become more aware, and there have been effective public awareness campaigns" by governments.

County police determined that the toilet, package and "numerous miscellaneous notes," were no real threat. Lt. Robert McCullough, a department spokesman, said Monday afternoon that a Baltimore-area man had been arrested in connection with the incident, but declined to identify the man, pending a bail review hearing.

Whoever is responsible for leaving the toilet at the courthouse could be charged with crimes related to placing a look-alike explosive device in a public space, McCullough said.

Duane G. Davis, a local businessman, acknowledged Monday that he has made similarly decorated toilets, including one at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore — a statement disputed by the museum.

He said of Monday's incident, "It's not a stunt. It's a statement." He denied that he had left the toilet at the courthouse, but in a post on his Facebook page about 7:30 a.m. Monday, he wrote: "Left my Toilet at the Baltimore County Courthouse. Also left a kite of Knowledge. Secrets will not Block Justice."

According to his Facebook profile, Davis owns Shorty's Underground Pit Beef Shack in Upperco. Reached by phone at the restaurant, he at first denied knowing anything about the toilet. Later, he said he boasted on his Facebook page about leaving it so that his supporters, who are responsible, "don't get in trouble for it."

Police declined to comment on what was written on the notes attached to the toilet. A photo on the Towson Patch online news site showed a note that mentioned Davis and called on "officials in and around the City of Zion, Illinois, [to] conduct a complete and impartial investigation of the death of Shorty's son, Gerrell Davis, in December of 2006."

According to reports in the Chicago Tribune, 16-year-old Gerrell Davis was fatally shot in 2006 after he allegedly broke into the home of Saffiyya and Sharif Darr, who ran a shoe business out of their home in Zion. The incident shook the small town, located between Chicago and Milwaukee, and led residents to hold a forum aimed at nonviolence, which Duane Davis attended, the Tribune reported.

Davis also said he left "a bedpost" at the Baltimore Basilica Monday morning, saying it was an exercise of his rights to protest and free speech.

Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said a wooden post was placed outside the entrance to the Basilica's prayer garden. Attached was a mobile phone and news clippings, "none having to do with the Basilica or the Catholic Church," he said.

Pete Hilsee, a spokesman for the American Visionary Art Museum, said the museum does not exhibit any of Davis' works, but that he did drop off a toilet at the museum's main plaza last fall. That toilet was similar to the one found at the Towson courthouse, with news clippings and a mobile phone attached, Hilsee said.

The Baltimore museum, which displays self-taught artists, regularly receives unsolicited artworks through the mail or online, Hilsee said. He added, "The implication that [Davis' toilet] is part of the American Visionary Art Museum's art collection or on view is incorrect."

jtorbati@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jtorbati

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