Authorities evacuated the building and called in a bomb squad, which found that the box contained an unloaded rifle.
“We find it bizarre and are trying to figure what this guy was thinking,” Trooper Lawrence Hopper, a spokesman for the Utah Highway Safety Office, told The Washington Post early Friday morning.
The package also contained a note but investigators were not ready to release its contents.
“We are not sure of a motive,” Hopper said. “We are trying to locate the subject to ask him why he did it.”
The scare came on a day when Utah was once again the staging ground for a raging national debate over Planned Parenthood and efforts to defund the group.
Utah is one of several states that have followed the Republican lead in trying to pull funding for Planned Parenthood. Efforts to defund the organization stem from the release this summer of undercover videos that, according to critics, showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue. (Planned Parenthood has denied wrongdoing.)
Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, announced in mid August that he was cutting off federal funds flowing through the state to Planned Parenthood and other groups.
“You know they colored outside the lines and people should be very concerned about the selling of fetal body parts for money,” Herbert said on Aug. 14, according to Fox 13.
His announcement was met with resistance, however. Thousands signed an online petition protesting Herbert’s decision and on Aug. 25 hundreds of Planned Parenthood supporters rallied on the capitol’s steps, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
Planned Parenthood responded swiftly, suing the governor in federal court and accusing him of acting emotionally and unconstitutionally based upon unfounded allegations.
“It was obviously an emotional reaction on his part,” Karrie Galloway, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Utah, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “To be honest, he doesn’t even understand the money. It’s not his world.”
Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups granted Planned Parenthood an injunction against the governor’s order.
On Thursday afternoon at around 2 p.m., Waddoups said he would let his injunction stand — allowing funds to keep flowing to Planned Parenthood — until he issues a written ruling on the case.
Roughly an hour later, a man who appeared to be in his 20s and was dressed in a dark suit and tie walked into the state house with a long, triangular, white package in his hands. On top of the package lay a floral wreath, “like a Christmas wreath,” Hopper said.
“He basically placed it down in the middle of the rotunda, knelt and paused there for a moment, then got up and walked away,” the state trooper added.
State troopers monitoring surveillance cameras quickly spotted the suspicious package and rushed to the location in less than a minute, but the man was gone. Cameras recorded the suspect driving away in a white SUV.
Troopers then called in the Salt Lake City Police Department’s bomb squad, which used a robot to open the package and determine that it was not explosive.
The incident left investigators baffled. They have identified a person of interest that they are hoping to interview, but would not say whether that is the person in the video or someone else who might have information about the man’s identity.
Hopper did say that investigators believe the bomb scare was “an isolated incident” and that he was not aware of recent threats to the capitol or lawmakers.
“I would not be concerned if I were the public,” he said. “The public is in no danger.”
Despite the fact that his dramatic gesture caused panic; the evacuation of the capitol; and an investigation currently involving seven local, state or federal agencies, the man who left the rifle may not ultimately face any charges, Hopper said.
That’s because Utah is an open carry state. Even in the capitol.
In fact, if the man had simply sauntered into the rotunda with a rifle on his back, there would have been nothing that troopers could have done to stop him.
“The state of Utah has an open carry policy that includes the capitol, unfortunately,” Hopper told The Post. “I say unfortunately because it just causes dangerous situations.”
“It has to be open and seen by all, of course,” Hopper added. “With this situation, this is really not considered open carry… Whether he’s arrested or not is up to the investigators.”
The capitol will reopen at the usual time Friday morning, he said.