Anthrax suspicions overwhelm officials

Jackie Mah

The overwhelming number of suspicious material cases in the last 18 days has left the FBI, the Evanston Police Department and the Chicago Police Department spread thin.

In the past two and a half weeks the FBI has investigated more than 50 cases of suspicious substances in Chicago, agent Virginia Wright said.

Nationwide, 2,500 reports of anthrax-related suspicions have come through the bureau in the last 18 days. Normally the FBI sees only 250 cases of suspected biological terrorism a year.

All of the anthrax scares in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs have been negative, she said.

In one of the more recent scares, Chicago transit authorities shut down the El three times on Monday and Tuesday while the fire department checked out reports of “white, powdery substances” at the Fullerton, Clark/Division and Argyle Red Line stops, CTA spokeswoman Anne McCarthy said.

At Fullerton, the substance was believed to be talcum powder; in the stairwell at Clark/Division, the powder was identified as residue from a graffiti blaster; and at Argyle, McCarthy couldn’t say what the substance found on a turnstile was, but it also was determined to be harmless.

Although all three incidents, and one at the Marion/Oak Park Green Line stop, turned out to be false alarms, the trains were stopped for a total of six and a half hours, inconveniencing many travelers and taking up limited police resources.

All law enforcement officials have been ordered by the FBI to be at a state of “heightened alert. That means being suspect of anything unusual going on in their surroundings and being extra vigilant,” Wright said. “Yet, you don’t want to cause a panic.”

Citizens also need to be alert but must refrain from unnecessarily contributing to the already huge number of reports being made, she said.

“People have to use good common sense. The false alarms are causing us to basically react to and investigate things, and that takes us away from our highest priority, which is to investigate and determine who is responsible for the terrorist attacks,” she said.

Cmdr. Michael Perry of the Evanston Police Department said the department has been getting four to six reports of suspicious mail per day for the past two weeks, up from the norm of essentially zero per day.

After it is deemed valid, each report of a threat must be processed and tested by the Illinois Department of Human Services, Perry said.

Several cases still are being tested, Perry said, including a report of a suspicious envelope at Jewel-Osco Food Store, 1128 Chicago Ave., that was found Sunday.

“We didn’t get a lot of calls until it made the media,” he said. “Then everybody started calling. People have to use their heads.”

The Evanston fire department also has been responding to calls concerning suspicious packages. Division Chief Alan Berkowsky said 18 calls have been made since the first scare at Sports Pavilion and Aquatics Center on Saturday.

The fire department is considering buying an $8,500 machine to allow them to analyze suspicious materials on-site. The machine could analyze samples within 15 minutes, he said.

Most of the samples the fire department has confiscated for identification currently are sitting in a secure room in one of the city’s fire stations because the Illinois crime labs are too backed up with similar cases to accept more samples for testing. If Evanston purchased this machine, it would be used to analyze “credible” threats, Berkowsky said.

In light of the number of false alarms, CPD said residents must strike a balance between caution and paranoia.

“We don’t want anyone to panic, but as the mayor has stated, we want people to be aware of (their) surroundings,” said Patrice Harper, a spokeswoman for CPD. “We’ve been on a heightened state of alert, particularly after the U.S. started to strike Afghanistan.”

Postal employees also were told to be extra cautious, U.S. Postal Service district spokesman Tim Rantliff said.

“We are on the lookout for suspicious mail, and we want our customers to do the same things,” Rantliff said.

About 20 of the 200 post offices in the northwest Illinois postal district have reported suspicious mail in the past couple of weeks, according to Rantliff. He said that number is likely to increase in the following weeks.

The U.S. Postal Service is providing concerned employees with gloves and masks to wear while handling mail, and some have taken advantage of that provision, Rantliff said.

According to Rantliff suspicious mail may include any white, powdery substance; be unexpected, unfamiliar, outdated or unverifiable; have an irregular shape; or contain strange odors, stains or protruding wires.

While Rantliff said he knows the list is extensive, “we prefer to err on the side of caution,” he said.

The Daily’s Susan Daker contributed to this report.