'It was frightening,' Barnesville editor says of anthrax scare

lfabian@macon.comJuly 19, 2013 

A second threatening letter arrived Friday at a Lamar County newspaper office, a day after suspicious powder in another envelope forced evacuations.

News editor and publisher Walter Geiger has received death threats before, but never expected his Thursday mail would shut down a large chunk of Barnesville.

Friday, hazardous materials inspectors were at the Herald Gazette, but did not evacuate buildings.

About 12:35 p.m. Thursday, the second letter in Geiger's stack had an address taped to the front, which should have been a clue, he said in hindsight Friday morning.

"As soon as I pulled the letter out, I had powder all over me," said Geiger, co-owner of the Herald Gazette since 1979.

He immediately washed with antibacterial soap.

"It was frightening, especially when you've got powder all over your hands," Geiger said.

Seven other employees were in the building on Greenwood Street when he opened Thursday's mail.

"As you can imagine, the ladies in the office were freaking out," he said.

Someone called the Lamar County Sheriff's Office to report the threat, which included a letter that stated: "You'd better watch what you put in your newspaper, you lying piece of (expletive)."

Geiger got a pair of tweezers to hold the evidence so it could be photographed for the newspaper.

He put a piece of colored construction paper in the bottom of an Amazon cardboard box and placed the powder inside.

"I knew they were going to take it away and I wanted pictures," the local newsman said. "About the time we finished with it, they told us to get the hell out of there."

Barnesville police started evacuating nearby buildings within 1,000 feet.

People were ordered out of the library, Chamber of Commerce, Industrial Development Authority, a doctor's office and a church playground.

The GBI didn't have a protocol for white powder letters, so the FBI responded from Macon, along with a response technician from the U.S. Postal Service, Geiger said.

The Hazardous Materials team from the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department arrived and immediately began setting up showers out in the street in case the powder turned out to be a hazardous chemical.

Geiger asked an investigator if it could really be ricin or anthrax, which he thought were rare.

"You'd be surprised," he was told. "It's like meth, the recipe's on Google."

Macon-Bibb firefighters in gas masks, white suits and rubber boots entered the building to investigate.

The masked Postal Service technician went in with a device to detect threatening chemicals in the air.

The newspaper employees gathered under a shade tree as it took five and a half hours to clear the scene.

"It turned out to be baking soda," Geiger said.

Friday, Geiger did not open the new envelope, which also had a printed address taped to the front.

"We put it in plastic bag and put it in a box outside in a grassy area," Geiger said.

He pleaded with federal investigators not to shut down the paper a second time.

By mid-afternoon Friday, the Macon-Bibb hazmat team erected a containment area while they inspected the latest delivery.

"It felt like it had powder in it," Geiger initially said, but it only contained a letter.

He did not read it and the FBI did not want to disclose further details.

Investigators have a couple of leads and are narrowing down who might be responsible for the threats.

"I think they're going to make that person's life miserable," he said.

The incidents gave the weekly newspaper a lead story for Tuesday's edition and lots of new traffic on their subscriber-only website.

Geiger is also thankful for the professional response from Macon-Bibb firefighters.

"They were great."

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service