Incendiary mailings spread from Maryland to D.C.

By Theola Labbe-DeBose and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 12:00 AM

A package addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ignited in a District postal facility Friday, authorities said, a day after two similar parcels containing low-grade incendiary devices flashed in Maryland government buildings.

The latest incident, which caused no injuries, occurred in a Northeast Washington postal facility that was created to screen mail sent to Congress and federal agencies after the terrorist attacks and anthrax scare of 2001. The package sent to Napolitano was not opened, but it ignited after a worker sorting mail tossed it into a bin, authorities said.

"The package was described as popping, smoking, and with a brief flash of fire, and then it extinguished itself," D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said.

The incendiary parcel confirmed fears that Thursday's packages in Maryland were not the only ones in the mail and gave heightened urgency to an already large investigation involving myriad local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

"I hope this is just one individual," D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said of whoever mailed the parcels. "We hope it's not part of some broader terrorist act."

Lanier described the package that ignited Friday in the District as "very similar" to the packages in Maryland.

A postal employee flagged down a D.C. police car shortly after 2 p.m. Friday to report what had just happened at the mail facility in the 3300 block of V Street NE. The investigation is being led by the FBI's Joint Terrorist Task Force in Baltimore, and the package will be taken to the FBI lab in Quantico for analysis, Lanier and FBI officials said.

The task force's role includes evidence collection. Lindsay Godwin, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington Field Office, said FBI terrorism investigators were involved in the case but had not classified the matter as an act of terrorism.

"I think until we can rule out anything, we have to have all of our assets involved," Godwin said.

The two Maryland packages contained identically worded messages in what appear to be handwritten block letters: "Report Suspicious Activity! Total [B-------]! You Have Created A Self Fulfilling Prophecy. -X-"

Maryland State Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan said the notes may refer to the messages that cycle on electronic signboards above the region's highways asking motorists to report suspicious activity. But whether the sender has a grudge against government had not been determined.

"We're not sure what we have," Sheridan told reporters. He said no additional packages had surfaced as of Friday afternoon in Maryland government mailrooms.

Officials would not say whether they found a note in the D.C. package.

One of the Maryland packages, addressed to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), was opened by a mailroom worker in Annapolis, and the other, mailed to state Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, was opened by an employee at the Transportation Department's headquarters near Baltimore. Both employees suffered singed fingers.

The Maryland parcels were white cardboard boxes measuring 71/2 inches by 4 inches by 1 inch, authorities said.

Those Maryland packages bore apparently fictitious return addresses in the District, one a parking garage, the other a strip of retail stores, officials said. Lanier declined to disclose what return address, if any, was on the parcel that ignited Friday.

Napolitano learned of the situation in routine security briefings, a Homeland Security spokeswoman said. She said the department is closely monitoring the case.

Dozens of law enforcement officers converged on V Street after the device ignited, and emergency vehicles bathed the block in strobing light.

The postal facility is in an industrial area near several major city commuter routes, including New York Avenue NE. The facility is a processing center only, and customers cannot enter the location or use it to send or receive mail.

The facility runs two shifts and employs 50 to 100 workers, said Ray Robinson, executive vice president of Local 140 of the American Postal Workers Union.

Friday's parcel ignited about two hours after Sheridan released a copy of the notes in the packages sent to O'Malley and Swaim-Staley.

Sheridan said investigators have no suspects in those mailings. "We just don't know where this person is going with this," he said.

One note might have been a photocopy of the other, Sheridan said during a news conference at state police headquarters at Sykesville.

Possession and use of an incendiary device is a felony, Sheridan said after remarking that "this is not a prank."

The highway messages urging motorists to report suspicious activity were taken down in Maryland shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday, about three hours before the Maryland packages were discovered. Transportation Department spokesman Jack Cahalan said it had been decided "weeks ago" to remove the messages after the holiday travel season.

Lanier said "protective measures" have now been put in place across the region, but she declined to elaborate.

Staff writers Mary Pat Flaherty, Spencer S. Hsu, Ed O'Keefe and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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