Commissioner Tom "Yogi" Bowers receives mysterious "ricin" letter

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   It's no secret that in the last few weeks of Carter County Budget Committee workshops, Tom "Yogi" Bowers has been quite vocal. His incessant questions and persistence in tracking the almighty tax dollar has not won him many friends.
   As Capt. Tom Bowers, code enforcement officer for the City of Elizabethton, he's also made an enemy or two. So it's hard to say who might have sent the letter he received Thursday, which was alleged to contain ricin, a highly potent organic toxin that has gained popularity since the post-Sept. 11 anthrax scare.
   Bowers, a county commissioner for the 4th District, spent Monday and Tuesday evenings at the Carter County Courthouse objecting to funding for agencies such as the county school system and rescue squad, which get their budget money from the General Fund. Wednesday was his day off.
   "I came into work Thursday and got around to checking my mailbox and there was a letter there. It looked kind of funky -- had sort of a torn stamp on it and really childish-looking handwriting and a return address of 599 Elk Ave.," Bowers said Thursday evening during a telephone interview.
   Scrawled under the street address in a different color of ink was the name of the city or town. "I couldn't really make it out, but it looked like 'Lamberville,' " he said. There was no state listed, but the letter carried an East Tennessee postmark.
   "I noticed something shaking in it like sand. Well, that set off the bells, whistles and red flags," he said. He called Capt. Mike Peters, chief detective for the Elizabethton Police Department. "We looked it over. It wasn't anthrax, or similar to anthrax because anthrax is powder," Bowers said. "This was more like sand or salt, or sugar, maybe. Granular."
   They could see a note inside and carefully pried open the envelope to where they could read the printed message. "It read, 'Ricin for you and the mosquitoes,' " Bowers said. "In the bottom of the envelope was this white granular substance."
   Asked whether he had had any serious code enforcement problems lately, Bowers said, "Nothing that heavy."
   Does he think it might be related to his stance during the county budget workshops? "That was my first impression," he said. "However, there is no shortage of nuts out here."
   If the incident were related to the county budget, it would not be the first time this week that intimidation tactics allegedly have been used. County Commissioner Joe Woods, who barely escaped from his burning home three weeks ago, allegedly was told by a member of the rescue squad, "You ought to have burnt up," after Woods backed Bowers on a motion not to approve the squad's budget.
   Bowers has since asked that the squad member's conduct be reviewed and appropriate measures taken to ensure that similar incidents do not happen in the future.
   As to the alleged toxin in the letter, Bowers said he doesn't believe it is ricin. "I don't believe anybody in Elizabethton or Carter County would have access to that. What I believe is it's some knucklehead that has seen an episode of 'CSI.' There was one on TV here a few weeks ago where they used ricin and put it in somebody's salt shaker to 'knock them off.'
   "I think it's some wanna'-be bin Laden. They have no real life, so they spend too much time in front of the television living vicariously through TV shows."
   Bowers said the letter was opened around 10 a.m. Thursday. He later looked up "ricin" on the Internet and found that if absorbed through the skin, "It's supposed to take eight to 12 hours to kick in. So I've got about four hours," he said around 6:30 p.m.
   While Bowers said the potential hazard to himself didn't bother him, he was concerned that whoever sent the letter was "cowardly enough to send it through the mail to whoever else might handle it, and that maybe some other individual would be hurt."
   Capt. Peters would not comment on the investigation; however, the FBI and postal inspector reportedly have been contacted.
   Ricin (Ricinus communis) is a large plant grown commercially for the pharmaceutical and industrial uses of its oil and for use in landscaping.