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Hoaxes lead to serious trouble

©Associated Press,
published November 4, 2001

WASHINGTON -- For allegedly leaving an envelope of white powder on his boss' desk, an Ohio man faces a possible six months in jail. Kentucky college students accused of mailing confectioners' sugar to a friend could spend up to five years in federal prison. A Connecticut man could get five years, too, for a hoax that shut his office.

The justice system so far is showing little patience with people who cause anthrax hoaxes. "Those who believe this is an opportunity for a prank should know that sending false alarms is a serious criminal offense," President Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address. "We will pursue anyone who tries to frighten their fellow Americans in this cruel way."

Since mid-October, the Postal Inspection Service has received more than 8,600 hoax threats or reports of incidents related to anthrax. That's an average of 578 a day for an agency more accustomed to dealing with a few hundred such calls a year, said spokesman Dan Mihalko.

"Prosecutors want to grab these initial hoaxers and effectively hoist the wretch for all the other potential hoaxers to see," said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.

In at least one recent case, however, a grand jury reduced a charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. John Silz of Cincinnati, was charged with inducing panic for leaving an envelope with white powder on his boss' desk as a joke.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said the "overwhelming majority" of the 2,300 incidents or suspected scares reported to the bureau since Oct. 1 have been false alarms or practical jokes.

Turley separates the pranksters into two categories: "dimwitted" jokesters who essentially mean no harm, and malicious people who would spread anthrax if they could.

"Prosecutors are very good at drawing the distinction between the guy who is just stupid," said Robert McCulloch, prosecuting attorney in St. Louis Mo. "You have to be able to distinguish that from the guy who is truly malicious."

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