By Gretchen M. Putnam, Bill Kirk, Mike Labella and Alex Lippa, Staff writers
---- — A Haverhill man described as “mentally ill” sent or dropped off thank-you cards containing what turned out to be baking soda to at least four Merrimack Valley businesses — and there may be more arriving in mailboxes today.
Three nearly simultaneous reports of suspicious white powder were reported early yesterday, prompting a massive response by local and state police, the FBI, the state Department of Fire Services, and the regional Hazardous Materials Response Team to the Home Depot in Methuen, Home Health VNA in Lawrence, and the Edwards Law Office next to the police station in Haverhill.
Later in the day, another card was received at a North Andover business at 85 Flagship Drive, again bringing out the HazMat team and investigators.
Haverhill Police said they have a suspect, but no arrest had been made as of 10 p.m. Monday. Detectives searched an apartment at 46-48 S. Main St. in Haverhill about noon yesterday, leaving with several plastic bags containing what appeared to be stationary and other items. Investigators refused to identify the man, but said “charges are pending.” They also said the man was “mentally ill,” but would not say anything further.
While the four packages received yesterday contained baking soda, police are warning people to be careful of anything suspicious received in the mail. Each of the four cards sent were labeled with a return address, although investigators would not provide more information.
“It is believed that there may have been other envelopes containing the white powder mailed,” read a statement from Haverhill Police.
Joseph Edwards, owner of Edwards Law Office at 60 Bailey Boulevard in Haverhill, was one of those who received a card. He said the mail came early, about 10 a.m., and in the pile of letters he received was a small green envelope hand-addressed to him. He said the handwriting on the envelope was “shaky,” and, although there was a return address on the envelope, there was no stamp.
He opened the card, and the white powder fell onto his desk. He described the amount of powder as “about the size of my small finger.” He said the card was unsigned.
Edwards said he didn’t panic, but simply called police, who he said responded immediately, sending officers to his office. The station is about 100 feet from his office, on the opposite side of How Street.
“You hear about things like this as to what’s the right thing to do,” said Edwards, who is also chairman of the city’s License Commission. “I called police, and they came.”
Edwards said investigators asked him about a specific person’s name, and that he told them he did not recognize it. Asked if he could think of any reason why someone would choose him to send him such a card, Edwards said he had no idea.
“I do have a big ad in the phone book with my photo,” he said.
Methuen Police received the first report of an envelope containing a suspicious white powder about 8 a.m. yesterday. The white powder spilled from an envelope mailed to the Home Depot at The Loop. Methuen Fire Department Deputy Dennis Fragala said the envelope was placed in the mail bin at Home Depot with the morning mail at the front of the store.
He said the mail is then typically sent by workers from the front of the store to the bookkeeping department in the back of the store through a pneumatic tube. When employees in the bookkeeping department opened the envelope, the white powder spilled out onto a desk.
When firefighters arrived, they quarantined three employees from the front of the store and three others in the bookkeeping department who had come in contact with the material. They were sitting in the “siding” aisle near the back of the store for several hours yesterday morning, awaiting the test results. Nobody was sickened from their exposure the substance, Fragala said.
While the HazMat team was in Methuen, along with at least one FBI agent, another call came in from Lawrence that an envelope with a suspicious white powder was found at the Home Health VNA, 350 Merrimack St.
The FBI arrived at that location as well, along with another HazMat team and local police and firefighters, said police Chief John Romero. He said somebody in the office opened the envelope, exposing four people to the white powder.
“It was handled by a couple of people,” he said.
Romero believes the envelope arrived on Saturday and that employees found it when they opened their mail around 8:30 yesterday morning. Romero said there were similarities between the package found at the Home Depot in Methuen and the one found in Lawrence, but declined to say what those similarities were. The building was not evacuated and police were telling employees in the building that they were not in danger.
Meg Hogan, vice president of external relations for Home Health VNA, said four staff members (three administrators and the receptionist which opened the letter) were quarantined in a conference room in the office for about four hours. After they were alerted by authorities that the substance was “97 percent sure to be baking soda,” they were sent home and told to shower. Professional cleaning is being done in the area which was affected.
The fourth envelope was opened about 3:30 p.m. yesterday at an office inside 85 Flagship Drive in North Andover. North Andover Police refused to comment. There were several different businesses listed on the directory outside the building.
Investigators also remained tight-lipped about the man behind the envelopes. Two Haverhill detectives were seen searching a Dumpster and leaving the building at 46-48 S. Main St. in Bradford, carrying several plastic bags.
There are businesses on the first floor and housing on the two floors above. Known as the Webster Building, it was the former home of Hooker-Howe Costume Rental and sits near the southern end of the Basiliere Bridge. The costume store closed in the mid-1990s and the property languished for more than a decade.
The building is currently owned by Housing Support Inc. of Newburyport. In 2006, the group announced plans to renovate the building and create 10 apartments upstairs for people with special needs in danger of becoming homeless. A call to the agency went unanswered last night.
The regional Hazardous Materials Response Team which responded to all four sites yesterday is based in Danvers and has specially trained members from across the region.
Haverhill Fire Department Deputy Chief William Laliberty, a member of the team, said the material at Home Depot was tested and determined to be safe. The team was then sent to the Lawrence, Haverhill, and North Andover offices where the other envelopes were received. Each report came back identifying the powder as baking soda.
“We have a process, using bioterrorism testing, to identify the material,” Laliberty said. “We still have to send it to a lab to confirm this, but we have determined it is a non-credible threat and there is no danger to the public.”
Edwards praised the work of the firefighters and police who spent several hours outside his office yesterday waiting for investigators to arrive after being at Home Depot and Home Health VNA.
“The Fire Department did a superb job today,” Edwards said about the way emergency officials responded to his call.
Monday was supposed to be a routine “in-office” work day for Edwards. He appeared unfazed by the day’s events as they unfolded.
“It extended my weekend by a half a day,” he said. “It is an odd thing ... Some things happen in life you have no control over.”
Shawn Regan and Brian Messenger contributed to this report.
Be on the lookout If you receive a white powder-threat, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service said: Do not handle the mail piece or package suspected of contamination. Make sure that damaged or suspicious items are isolated and the immediate area is cordoned off. Ensure that all persons who have touched the mail piece wash their hands with soap and water. Notify the police. List all persons who have touched the letter and/or envelope. Include contact information and have this information available for the police. As soon as practical, shower with soap and water. Typical characteristics of a suspicious letter include: Powdery substance on the outside of the letter or package. Inappropriate or unusual labeling. Excessive postage. Handwritten or poorly typed addresses. Misspelling of common words. Strange return address or no return address. Incorrect titles or title without a name. Not addressed to a specific person. Marked with restrictions, such as "Personal," "Confidential," or "Do not X-ray." Marked with any threatening language. Postmarked from a city or state that does not match the return address. Powdery substance felt through or appearing on the package or envelope. Oily stains, discolorations, or odor. Lopsided or uneven envelop. Excessive packaging material such as masking tape and string. Excessive weight.