Bot beats bogus bomb – Berkeley-bound bundle blown to bits – January 27, 2010

Left, the non-bomber mailing what turned out to be a fuming, hot package. Right, police and a Kinko’s employee await the bomb squad in the alley north of 16th and G streets. Right, the soon-to-be-blown-up package. Left photo courtesy APD; right photos by KLH | Eye

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

NORTHTOWN – A package dropped off last Wednesday, Jan. 20 at the Northtown FedEx Kinko’s bore multiple signs of being something less benign than the bicycle light it turned out to be.

The package was addressed to a Berkeley location and bore what seemed to be a blatantly bogus return address – “123 Main Street” – also in Berkeley. The phone number left by the package mailer was also false.

After a while, the package began emitting a chemical smell, causing customers to complain, and it was warm to the touch. A store employee then placed the parcel in a plastic bag, took it into the alley behind the store and set it on the ground, then, at 12:46 p.m., called Arcata Police.

Officers arrived and blocked off the alley. The Arcata Fire Department was notified and responded, along with personnel from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Explosive Ordinance Disposal Team, casually known as the bomb squad. Incident commander Sgt. Ron Sligh, several APD officers and Arcata Firefighters then proceeded to hurry up and wait while the proper response was formulated.

The bomb technicians told Sligh that their robot would X-ray the package, but if it contained no mechanical parts – something that might be a triggering device – they would take no further action.

People in the area didn’t appear to take the potential explosive too seriously. As the bomb techs assembled the bomb bot, a few passersby lingered near the yellow warning tape, enjoying the show. A Kinko’s employee occasionally came out of the store and stood over the parcel, offering a friendly wave to officers standing on the far side of 16th Street. Someone else could be seen in the window of an adjacent residence, peering down at the parcel from just feet away.

Sligh also contacted the Eureka Fire Department Hazardous Materials Response Team, which is funded under a Joint Powers Authority agreement with local communities, each of which, including Arcata, kicks in $8,000 per year to have its services available.

The Hazmat Team told the sergeant that they’d contain any leaky chemicals, but wouldn’t remove or dispose of the item. This created a temporary quandary, as Sligh tried to figure out how to eliminate the hazard if the bomb squad wouldn’t take it. “I can’t just leave it here,” he was heard to say.

As Sligh made a number of calls, trying to get various public safety officials to talk to each other and ascertain jurisdiction, the robot was assembled and began its wobbly journey down the alley.

The disposal issue became moot when the brave little bot’s X-ray showed that the package contained “a suspicious looking mechanical device.” The robot moved the package to a bomb trailer and the device was transported out of Arcata.

APD Capt. Tom Chapman said the parcel was taken to a location east of Blue Lake and detonated. Little remained of the package afterward, though the bits were collected and returned to APD.

Thursday, officers began the search for the suspect, who, seen in a low-resolution security video image, resembled any number of Arcata males with long hair and a beard. Officers also tried to determine which forensic lab should be sent the bomb remnants for analysis.

Friday, the investigation ended abruptly when the person who’d mailed the package was located and offered an explanation that turned the whole event into a non-issue.

Accoring to an APD press release, FedEx Security was able to provide the sender’s name and address from the prepaid internet postage.  The “device” the bomb squad had detected in the package was only a rechargeable bike light consisting of several neon tubes.  Investigators determined that the sender was returning the merchandise to the Berkeley-based business.

The sender said that the fictitious return address was a default address that appeared when he was purchasing the postage online and that he merely neglected to change it.

Regarding the hazmat disposal issue, Ed Laidlaw, coordinator for the EFD Hazardous Materials Response Team, said it’s a common misconception that his unit takes custody of dangerous items. He said that once they’re contained, such items are usually disposed of by private contractors.

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