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In a season of terror, fear came in small packages -- via mail

August 01, 2008|Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Death, it seemed, was coming through the mail.

It arrived in a plain white prepaid-postage envelope, one that looked normal except for the eccentric lettering -- a block letter "R" that looked like an "A" -- and the cellophane tape that sealed it.

Inside were deadly spores that drifted into the air as soon as the envelope was opened.

Now, almost seven years later, it can be difficult to recall how quickly fear spread across the nation as mail-borne anthrax killed five people from Florida to Connecticut in the fall of 2001.

It began at a time when the nation was already jittery with fear, 24 days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. First an editor at the Sun, a supermarket tabloid in Boca Raton, Fla., died of anthrax inhalation. Then anthrax turned up at NBC News in New York, in an envelope addressed to television anchor Tom Brokaw. Then at the Washington office of Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the chamber's majority leader at the time.

The letter to Daschle was dated "09-11-01."

"We have this anthrax. You die now," it said. "Allah is great."

President Bush said the letters might have been sent by accomplices of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born terrorist who launched the Sept. 11 attacks, although he admitted that he had no direct evidence.

Bush told the nation that the government was on the case. "We are taking strong precautions, we are vigilant, we are determined," he said.

But there was not much evidence that the government could protect anyone. A 61-year-old hospital worker in New York died, and then -- inexplicably -- a 94-year-old widow in a rural Connecticut town.

Equally frightening was an epidemic of suspected anthrax traces, many of them in the vast machinery of the nation's postal system, followed by waves of false alarms.

Traces of what appeared to be anthrax were detected at post offices in Huntington Beach, Tustin and Santa Rosa; at New York Gov. George Pataki's office in Manhattan; at German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's office in Berlin; and at mail facilities from Reno to Kansas City, Mo.

"It's getting closer," fretted Bruce Uppendahl, a farm supply store owner in Cheney, Kan., a small town three hours from Kansas City.

"I think about it all day," said Brenda Lorenz, one of his neighbors. "How can you not?"

Even children worried.

"I'm always looking out for white powder," said Dave Lannon-Gunn of Riverside, then 11. "Better safe than sorry."

There were hoaxes. Hundreds of Planned Parenthood clinics received threatening letters with a white powder inside. On Dec. 5, federal marshals arrested a suspect at a Kinko's photocopy store in a suburb of Cincinnati.

"The most wanted man in America is behind bars," crowed U.S. Marshals Service Director Benigno Reyna.

But the suspect was only a hoax artist. The most wanted man in America was still at large.

Over time, the FBI concluded that the anthrax poisoner was probably a U.S. government scientist, not a foreign terrorist as Bush had guessed.

The last known victim, Ottilie W. Lundgren, 94, of Oxford, Conn., died on Nov. 21, 2001. The attacks had stopped. No one knew why, any more than anyone -- except the perpetrator -- knew why they had started.

And in time -- not much time, in fact -- Americans stopped looking at their mail with suspicion.

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doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

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