False alarms keep agencies battling terrorism busy

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF

   Terrorism is no joking matter -- just ask federal, state and local agencies who have been working overtime, chasing down leads on reports of suspicious persons, packages and letters.
   So far, none of the incidents reported have amounted to a substantial threat, but they have given rise to alarm.
   On Tuesday, a Bristol, Tenn., man was arrested after placing white powder in the physicians' locker room at Bristol Regional Medical Center.
   Bristol Tennessee Police Department responded to a call at the hospital and found white powder covering a physician's shoes and other personal articles located within one of the lockers. A small plastic bag containing a similar powder was found in a cart in a room nearby, along with a threatening note.
   Hospital security had begun to secure and isolate the immediate area when it was found that a hospital employee placed the powder as a joke.
   Thomas Arnold Jr., 46, 34 Crown Circle, Bristol, was arrested and charged with false reporting, a Class E felony. He was arraigned Wednesday in General Sessions Court in Sullivan County.
   Another incident began Saturday when a palm-size computer turned up in a U-Haul truck checked in at the store in Johnson City.
   U-Haul employee Michael Sims said he found the computer Saturday morning but didn't turn it on until the next day -- and what he saw sent up a red flag.
   "Really, what scared me was it had 10 or 15 Arabic names in there with military rankings beside of a lot of them. It had the weather forecast -- what was going on over in Afghanistan," he said.
   The computer also contained information about other countries, including Pakistan.
   "When I first saw the names, I said, 'Ah, coincidence ...' Then when I saw the military rankings, I said, 'Well, this ain't good. I probably need to report this.' "
   Sims did a little investigating on his own and the information he learned made the situation appear even more eerie. The truck had been rented in Colonial Heights to a male/female couple. The male counterpart was described as being short and possibly heavy-set, however, the man who called and came in to the store to inquire about the computer "was none of that," Sims said.
   "He seemed to be in pretty good shape; 5-feet-11 or 6 feet tall," and of Saudi Arabian descent.
   "He called Monday morning and I told him I had ran off and left the computer at home and that it would be tomorrow before I had it," Sims said.
   "He said, 'Well, I'm going to be in town later; I'll stop by and check and see. I really need it back,' " Sims said.
   "I said, 'I understand that, Sir. I just don't have it with me at this moment.'
   "He started to leave and then turned back around and asked me who had access to it. I said, 'Just me. It's laying on the foot stool at the house. I said, 'Sorry, it was Monday morning; I just ran off and left it,' " Sims recounted.
   "He said, 'OK, thanks,' and left. He was real calm, mild-mannered and everything. But when he asked me who all had had access to it, that's when I said, 'Well, I've really got to call and report this now.'
   Monday evening, Sims went home and called a Johnson City Police Department detective who came to his house and checked out the computer.
   After examination, the detective told Sims it definitely was something that needed to be looked into, "that there was just too much stuff on there to ignore it. He called me back later that night and said they were definitely going straight to the FBI with it and have it checked out," Sims said.
   "Come to find out, the guy is an employee/citizen of Saudi Arabia and that's why he had all of that information," Sims said. He reportedly works for a local oil company and had been staying with his parents before moving to Johnson City.
   "It was just a big scare there and everything checked out OK, thank goodness ... But you can't ignore stuff like that, right now anyway, with the condition everything is in," Sims said.
   Locally, U-Haul has begun a double security check.
   " 'Meaningful assurance' is what we call it," Sims said. "People that come in here have to have three forms of ID to rent stuff. Fortunately, we did start doing this before the '9-1-1' attack. We are being cautious about these matters," Sims said.
   Another in a series of strange coincidences occurred Sept. 30, when an assistant manager from Office Max in Johnson City found unusual information in a shopping cart outside the store just before closing time.
   The woman said she walked out in the parking lot about 5:40 p.m. to retrieve the cart and noticed paper inside it.
   "I just thought it was trash. While I was getting it out, I got to looking at it and it was a guy's Green Card, three good credit cards and bank draft receipts from Bank of America in Boone, N.C.," she said. The credit cards did not expire until 2002 and 2004.
   "The Green Card didn't have a country on it -- that's what got me. It said 'employment authorization' and it had his picture on it and it expired on Nov. 11 of this year."
   The man also appeared to be of Saudi descent.
   The assistant manager checked with store employees, however, no one recalled having seen anyone matching the man's description inside the store.
   Alarmed, she called Johnson City Police. The officer came out, took a report, and told her he would turn the items over to the "found" department.
   "I called the FBI, and the first time I called, they never called me back. The second time, I called back and talked to an agent. He thought it was interesting. He took my name and phone number and my work number and said he would call me back, but he has never called back," she said.
   She does not know the disposition of the case.
   On Friday, Bristol Tennessee Police responded to King College regarding a suspicious package. The building was sealed off and individuals having contact with the package were detained. Everyone eventually was released and the incident turned out to be a false alarm.
   Another incident occurred around 4:30 p.m. when a package of suspicious nature was brought to Bristol Police Department by a concerned citizen. The package was sent to a laboratory for analysis.
   According to Agent Tom Brown from the Johnson City division of the FBI, the federal agency is in the process of coordinating with state and local officials to ensure everyone is on the same page.
   "The bottom line is, I think, state and local law enforcement have to develop some protocol for responding to the problems. Each department and each county are probably going to be a little different but we're trying to work with them in coming up with a protocol that will work so we don't overwhelm the state lab in Knoxville with any testing. It's a difficult situation and we're just going to have to keep working on it to try and resolve it as best we can," Brown said.
   "A lot of it is my own personal opinion, but I really don't think we would be high on anybody's (terrorism) list. For effect and impact, I really don't, but you never can be sure.
   "We obviously wouldn't take any information lightly. We try to filter it much like we have the concern and alarm about suspicious Middle Eastern people in the area.
   "There hasn't been one lead that's been generated about concern about local Middle Easterners or Arab individuals that really have amounted to anything. Not to say we're not appreciative of the information, but 'two suspicious Arabs driving up I-81' really is not something that we're going to react to," Brown said.
   "We're all developing a certain level of awareness and expertise on what we think is something to be concerned about and followed up on, and something that isn't."
   Brown said the agency has been involved in what is now called "Homeland Security" for quite some time in what the FBI terms "Weapons of Mass Destruction" exercises.
   "We've done exercises with NFS (Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. in Erwin) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; we've done exercises with Bristol Motor Speedway; we've done an exercise with Holston Defense (in Kingsport) ... But it still doesn't perfectly prepare you for things that are going on now," he said.
   The good news is, "We're not aware of any specific threat and we're not aware of any anthrax material being anywhere in this region," Brown said.
   The FBI met with Sullivan County law enforcement officials Tuesday and with representatives from other sheriff's departments Wednesday in Greeneville in its regularly monthly meeting. U.S. Postal Service workers and Brown's FBI counterparts also met Wednesday in Knoxville.
   "Unfortunately, we don't have a postal inspector presence up here, but they do in Chattanooga and Knoxville and I told our reps to address what you're going to do about Upper East Tennessee -- if there's anybody that's going to be designated as a point of contact to help local law enforcement," Brown said.
   "But until there's an identified threat in a letter, we really don't have any jurisdiction. Suspicious letters and packages are really the purview of the Postal Service," he said.
   "We would certainly be very involved in anything that was an actual threat or was actual material like anthrax. Until then, we certainly want to provide any counsel and guidance that we can and try to help some of the local law enforcement get through this, because they're being inundated," Brown said.
   "We're all trying to figure out what's the appropriate response. It's not always that simple and that clear. Without overreacting or underreacting you want to have an appropriate measured response that makes sense," he said.
   Dan Smith of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Johnson City, is the "designated person for the feds up in this part of the world," coordinating searches, material witnesses, arrest warrants and complaints.
   "From a federal point of view, I'm not aware of any known or perceived threats out there at this point, although I'm supposed to be on call 24 hours a day in the event something like that happens," Smith said.
   District Attorney General Joe Crumley, who is on the state Anti-Terrorism Task Force, said he has directed his staff not to open any mail without a return address "unless somebody has looked at it in a position to know. I think we've got a heightened sense of awareness and it's something to bring all of the agencies closer together.
   "If Sept. 11 did anything, I think it's given the public a renewed sense of patriotism and pride in their country and looking at pulling together instead of going our own selfish ways," Crumley said.