The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York City Police Department are investigating anonymous letters threatening Mayor Michael Bloomberg that tested positive for the deadly chemical ricin.
The writer of a letter opened in New York on May 24 threatened the mayor and made references to “the debate on gun laws,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said yesterday in a statement. The letter was opened in a biochemical containment box, which is part of the screening process for mail addressed to the mayor’s office, and mailroom employees weren’t infected, according to a memo today to employees in the office.
“I don’t want to republish the letters,” NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters today. “That would be doing the bidding of the individual who sent this letter. But the letter in essence complains about gun control and says that anyone who comes for my guns will be shot in the face.”
Similar correspondence sent to Mayors Against Illegal Guns in Washington was opened two days later, the NYPD said. Bloomberg is a co-chairman of the coalition, which is a national bipartisan group of mayors, according to its website. A letter sent to President Barack Obama that is similar to the one addressed to Bloomberg was intercepted today and turned over to the FBI.
The incident follows the arrest of a Mississippi man in April on charges of mailing ricin-laced letters to Obama and a U.S. senator. This month, a man was charged with threatening a federal judge in Spokane, Washington, in a letter that contained ricin, the FBI said.
The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, which is responsible for the mayor’s protection, are investigating the threats, Browne said. Jim Margolin, a spokesman for the FBI’s New York office, confirmed the bureau is investigating the matter and that the letters are undergoing further tests at a federal lab in Maryland.
Civilian personnel in both locations who came into contact with the letters didn’t display symptoms, Browne said. Members of the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit who had contact with the New York letters, which were opened at the city’s mail facility on Gold Street in Manhattan, are being examined for minor symptoms of ricin exposure that they experienced that have since abated, Browne said.
The mayor visited workers at Gold Street today and “thanked them for their dedication,” according to the memo. The city is monitoring the situation and there could be a delay in mail delivery over the next few days, the memo said.
“I have enormous confidence in the NYPD and the FBI and their procedures,” the mayor told reporters last night. “We take a lot of security measures, as you know. The men and women that open the mail, for example, even they are well-trained and we have procedures for something like this. This is not the first letter that was ever sent to anybody.”
The substance involved didn’t appear to be in a form that could be inhaled or “otherwise readily ingested,” and touching the envelope shouldn’t be a risk, according to the memo. The worker who directly handled the letter has no symptoms, which usually occur less than a day after exposure to ricin, and officials have no reason to believe employees in the same building where it was delivered are at risk.
Ricin is made from castor beans and has been used experimentally in medicine to kill cancer cells, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. It’s harmful and potentially fatal if inhaled or ingested, according to the CDC.
A man from Tupelo, Mississippi, was arrested last month in connection with the mailing of letters containing ricin to Obama and U.S. Senator Roger Wicker. James Everett Dutschke was charged with producing a biological agent for use as a weapon.
Dutschke, a former martial arts instructor, was arrested on April 27, four days after federal prosecutors dropped charges against Paul Kevin Curtis, an Elvis impersonator from Corinth, Mississippi. A lawyer for Curtis had told a federal judge during a court hearing that he may have been framed by Dutschke because the men had a long-running feud.
In Spokane, Matthew Ryan Buquet was arrested May 22 and charged with mailing a threatening communication. The FBI said in a statement that tests of the letter to U.S. District Judge Frederick Van Sickle confirmed it contained ricin.
The letters sent to New York and Washington were postmarked in Shreveport, Louisiana, on May 20, according to a statement posted on the website of the American Postal Workers Union. Shreveport Mayor Cedric Glover said in a statement that the city’s police department, along with the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, is working to apprehend those responsible for the letters.
Bloomberg said he didn’t feel threatened or angered by the letters.
“In terms of why they’ve done it, I don’t know,” Bloomberg said. “The letter obviously referred to our anti-gun efforts, but there’s 12,000 people that are going to get killed this year with guns and 19,000 that are going to commit suicide with guns, and we’re not going to walk away from those efforts. And I know I speak for all of the close-to 1,000 mayors in the Mayors’ Coalition Against Guns. This is a scourge on the country that we just have to make sure that we get under control and eliminate.”
The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.