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Mystery Letter Puts Odd Twist on Medfly Crisis

December 03, 1989|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Mediterranean fruit fly crisis has taken an odd turn with law enforcement officials tentatively investigating a mysterious letter from a group that claims to be breeding and spreading the pest throughout Southern California.

The group, calling itself the "Breeders," said in an unsigned letter to Mayor Tom Bradley, agricultural officials and media that it was angered by repeated aerial spraying of pesticide to eradicate the fly and "decided to make the Medfly 'problem' unmanageable and aerial spraying politically and financially intolerable."

Authorities are cautious in assessing the validity of the two-page typewritten letter, a copy of which was received by The Times. Many officials and investigators suspect a hoax.

Los Angeles Police Cmdr. William Booth said the letter was forwarded to the department from Bradley's office and turned over for investigation to the Criminal Conspiracy Section.

"A threatening letter is something we take seriously," Booth said. Even if the claim is a hoax, he said, the letter writer has committed at least a misdemeanor--"threatening to do something if government officials don't accede to their demands. That is a violation of the law." The "Breeders" also could be guilty of other crimes, including extortion, he said.

Rex Magee, associate director of the state Department of Food and Agriculture, said the threat must be taken "seriously until we prove otherwise. This particular infestation has had some characteristics that we have not seen in the past."

Roy Cunningham, a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist and dean of the state's Medfly scientific advisory panel, agreed that there have been some baffling aspects to the Los Angeles infestation.

"It has been peculiar that we go in and we don't find any larvae," Cunningham said. "We just find a few flies right outside spray zone boundaries."

Cunningham recalled that a similar letter, which apparently was a hoax, was written toward the end of the 1980-81 Medfly infestation in California.

The "Breeders" claim to have imported Medfly larvae into Southern California "and started breeding them here."

"State officials have probably noticed an increase as well as an unusual distribution of Medfly infestation in Los Angeles County since March, 1989," the letter stated. The group threatened to spread the infestation into the farm-rich San Joaquin Valley if aerial spraying is not stopped in the Los Angeles area. It apparently sent a copy of the letter to The Fresno Bee as well.

Los Angeles Police Department Detective John Mattingly, who with his partner is conducting the investigation, said it is in its "embryo stage" and that tests will be conducted on the letter's stationery and envelope. He would not disclose the type of tests.

Federal authorities were less definite.

"We are evaluating it," said Floyd Cotton, regional inspector general for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "We will review the letter and decide whether to open up a formal investigation."

The unprecedented infestation has required that 232 square miles of primarily residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Orange counties receive one or two aerial sprays of malathion from low-flying helicopters. Government officials say the malathion spray poses no threat to human health because the pesticide is applied in extremely low doses.

Cunningham asserted that the "Breeders" "logic is seriously faulted" because the government will not "abandon the effort" to use aerial applications to eradicate the pest. He said that if the Medfly were to become established in California, pesticide use by farmers and homeowners would increase.

Agricultural officials have blamed the spreading infestation on people who illegally smuggle infected fruit into the country or out of quarantined neighborhoods. In recent weeks, roving teams of agricultural inspectors have patrolled neighborhoods, while state officials have set up a hot line for residents to anonymously tip off authorities about violations.

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