Mailed powder joke leads to sender's arrest
By RICK GERSHMAN
TAMPA -- A 21-year-old man from a town near Gainesville has been charged with an anthrax hoax after officials said he mailed an envelope packed with baby powder to a friend in Lutz.
The envelope was intercepted Monday morning at the Lutz post office when some of the powder leaked, prompting emergency workers to briefly quarantine the area. About 70 postal workers and 14 customers were detained for about two hours.
Investigators said they had little trouble tracking the sender: He listed a return address on the envelope.
Alachua County sheriff's officials charged Eric Jerome Scott, 21, with the threatened use of a weapon of mass destruction, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Scott lives on the outskirts of Hawthorne, a small town off U.S. 301 about 14 miles east of Gainesville. He was released from the Alachua County jail on Thursday after posting $15,000 bail.
"This is a crime that is taken very seriously," Alachua sheriff's Sgt. Jim Troiano said. "Sending (white powder) through the mail is incredibly foolish -- even young kids know that."
Investigators said they contacted Scott at his home Tuesday afternoon, and he acknowledged sending the envelope, intending it as a practical joke. He turned himself in to Alachua County deputies.
The powder's discovery Monday morning attracted response teams from a half-dozen agencies to the post office at Sunset Boulevard and U.S. 41.
"It's a very costly issue as far all of the people who responded, and it's a very traumatic issue as far as the people who were involved," said Ken Tucker, regional director for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "It keeps all those resources tied up and away from their jobs."
Hillsborough sheriff's Lt. Rod Reder said deputies dealt with anthrax scares of various degrees almost constantly in October, after spores of the deadly bacterium showed up in media and government offices in Boca Raton, New York City, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. But it soon became clear the anthrax scare was not as random or extensive as feared.
"Once they realized Joe Blow wasn't getting hit, it died down," he said.
Though baby powder is harmless, Troiano said, the hoaxes are dangerous because they divert police and emergency workers from real public health threats. That's why an ill-conceived joke can lead to felony charges.
"This is a very foolish mistake -- no, actually, it's not a mistake, because he did this intentionally," Troiano said. "This is a foolish act, and he will pay the consequences."
-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.
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