State sets harsh penalties for anthrax hoaxes
Anyone responsible for an anthrax hoax in Hawai'i will be dealt with harshly and could face a maximum penalty of life in federal prison, authorities say.
"Anyone who pulls a stunt like this won't only be looking at the wrath of the public, they're looking at criminal consequences," said Honolulu prosecutor Peter Carlisle. "It's not funny, it's dangerous, it's incredibly stupid and it's criminal."
Meanwhile yesterday, Mayor Jeremy Harris unveiled new city equipment that he said can tell within 15 minutes if there is anthrax in the air or on the ground.
Police and FBI agents are investigating the delivery of a threatening letter containing a white powder that was opened Tuesday at the Coral Creek Golf Course in 'Ewa. The powder was not identified as of yesterday, but several golf course employees and a firefighter underwent decontamination treatment as a precaution.
The case was the first suspected anthrax hoax in Hawai'i since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the FBI said. Dozens of people have also reported legitimate though often far-fetched fears of suspicious mail or unidentified powder, forcing the evacuation of buildings and businesses.
No trace of anthrax has been found in Hawai'i since 1938, when it was detected in cattle on the Big Island, according to health officials. Since the attacks, anthrax has killed one man in Florida, and dozens more have been infected or exposed to the disease there and in Nevada, New York and Washington, D.C.
People who tap the fear of anthrax to trick or frighten others can be charged with making terrorist threats, Carlisle said.
A conviction for a single threat could bring a maximum sentence of five years in state prison; 10 years if the hoaxer made multiple threats or threatened a public official, he said.
Carlisle said he would seek federal prosecution for any applicable case in which the federal penalty would be harsher.
Elliot Enoki, U.S. attorney for Hawai'i, said the Justice Department is taking anthrax threats very seriously and that penalties could be severe.
"A threatened use of a biological agent is punishable with up to life imprisonment," he said, whether or not the person making the threat actually had access to the substance.
A threat can also be prosecuted as a federal offense if it is mailed through the U.S. postal system, and could carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison, he said.
In testing for anthrax, if a material cannot be identified immediately, the fire department's hazardous materials teams contain the material and turn it over to state Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response.
The state has been sending materials in some cases to a biological lab in Pearl City and to a University of Hawai'i-Manoa lab for chemical evaluation processes which were taking a few days to complete.
Harris said he ordered a dozen of the machines Sept. 11.
The first of the $15,000 test systems among seven received so far will be in use today, Fire Chief Attilio Leonardi said.
The city also is acquiring for $35,000 a mobile laboratory that will be able to conduct additional tests on biological and chemical substances in the field, Harris said.
A flurry of calls kept firefighters busy investigating reports of powdery substances again yesterday, from a mysterious substance found at Pearl City High School to a 5-pound bag in a Salt Lake intersection and a powdery substance at the Niketown store in Waikiki.
There were no cases of anthrax confirmed, but tension remained high among people who found unusual, unexpected parcels and letters, said O'ahu Civil Defense spokesman John Cummings.
"We need to calm down, get some common sense," he said.
Emergency Services Director Salvatore Lanzilotti said Honolulu "got in under the gun" and was able to order biodetection kits, which he said have become almost impossible to find since anthrax began showing up in mailings to prominent people.
Harris said the city will also have sniffers the size of hair dryers which can be used in places like the Blaisdell Concert Hall or Waikiki Shell to determine if anthrax has been introduced into the air.
If anyone exposed to anthrax can be treated before symptoms develop, treatment usually works, Harris said.
Harris said the kits also can detect plague, ricin and other deadly biological agents.
Kalanimoku Street between Kalakaua Avenue and Ala Wai Boulevard was closed briefly yesterday afternoon while hazardous materials teams retrieved for testing a white powder found in a third-floor Niketown warehouse area. About 14 employees were decontaminated in a shower in the store building. There were 13 fire department responses to such scares from midnight to 4 p.m. yesterday, Soo said.
Cummings at civil defense said police responded to 16 cases from midnight to 5 p.m. yesterday, while Emergency Medical Service teams were called to two locations.