Suspicious package mailed to clerk's office shows county's unpreparedness for terror

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

A suspicious package received Thursday by Carroll County Circuit Clerk Ramona Wilson is on its way to the U.S. Postal Inspector's office in Little Rock, according to Kenny Smith, public information officer for the United States Postal Service in Ft. Worth, Texas.

The package apparently contained a compact disk, and was sent, without a return address, via air mail from Thailand.

Islam is the leading minority religion in that predominantly Buddhist country. Wedged between Laos and Burma, Thailand's northern border is within 200 miles of China, where the sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic is centered.

The package was addressed to the "Carroll County Circuit Court Clerk and/or Judge, Family Law, Berryville, AR 72616 USA." On the wrapping it was noted that it contained a "3.5 floppy disk, letter on disk."

Delivery was made at mid-morning Thursday by a door-to-door postal carrier, as it was not sent to a specific street address or post office box.

The Thailand postmark immediately caught the eye of Wilson; then she began to wonder why someone would send a CD with a letter on it when postage on a written letter would be considerably less. Co-workers questioned the block letter handwriting, speculating that it looked like that of a right-handed person writing with the left hand.

Wilson admits that her concerns may well be unfounded, but that in light of the anthrax scare following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she called the Berryville Post Office. She was told she could refuse the delivery, and the package could be returned to Thailand. However, Wilson was not entirely comfortable with that suggestion, as the disk could contain legitimate communication for the court.

During the noon lunch hour she discussed the situation with Circuit Judge Alan D. Epley, who, she said, was not comfortable with the idea of putting the CD in a computer because of concerns about a computer virus.

After noon, Wilson contacted the sheriff's office, and Investigator Alan Hoos called the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "They weren't much help," Wilson said. "They said to call the health department."

Hoos did examine the package minimally, looking through a tear in the paper wrapping at one corner to see that it appeared to contain a plastic CD case, wrapped in several layers of plastic, Wilson explained.

Hoos tried to call the Carroll County Health Unit two or three times, but could get no answer, and placed the package in an evidence bag, which he gave to Wilson.

Hoos then called the U.S. Postal Inspector, and, according to Wilson, was told that "once we receive it, it is our problem."

Some five and one-half hours after receiving the package, Wilson called the Arkansas Health Department in Little Rock, and in the meantime Hoos returned, and in the presence of 911 Emergency Management Coordinator Tom Dugger, placed the evidence bag containing the package in yet another evidence bag, and sealed it, saying that the postal inspector said to take it to the Berryville Post Office, where it would be picked up for the inspector in Little Rock.

A Berryville postal carrier stated that post office workers were instructed in how to handle suspicious mail following the anthrax scare in early 2002, but did not elaborate on what was taught.

Wilson remains puzzled by the lack of anyone to assume authority regarding the suspicious package, and the apparent crossed lines of communication.

The package will be examined for biological contamination, and, Wilson hopes, computer virus. If the contents are clean, she hopes it will be returned to her.

After all, it could be a legitimate document for the courts, sent in good faith.

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