A Blizzard of Hoaxes

Documents reveal details about white-powder mailings, and how they tie up government responders.

The return address was listed 2413 NW Burnside St., Portland—a nonexistent location.

The sender was "The MIB, LLC"—a nonexistent business.

The more than 100 recipients, however, were real—as was their fear upon opening the envelopes and seeing white powder inside.

The threatening letters supposedly sent from the same bogus Portland address were mailed to the offices of U.S. senators and various media organizations across the country in early March. They proved a frightening reminder of the postal anthrax attacks of 2001 that killed five people and infected 17 others.

The powder in these letters was inert—and federal officials say they know who mailed them.

On May 14, a federal magistrate in Portland ordered the conditional release of Christopher Lee Carlson, 39, the Vancouver, Wash., man charged with 12 felony counts of mail threats in connection to the hoax. Carlson had been held in the Multnomah County Detention Center since his March 30 arrest. U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice M. Stewart released him to a halfway house, ordered him not to drink alcohol and to keep appointments with his psychiatrist.

Now, previously unreported documents in the case against Carlson reveal new details about his alleged crimes: He may be among the first accused domestic terrorists to claim sympathy with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the hacker group Anonymous.

The records also include the letters themselves—also previously unreported—in which Carlson predicted more hoax letters would be sent, slowly bleeding the government of resources as officials respond to the threats.

In fact, they have. In a two-week span starting April 26, six envelopes containing white powder were delivered to government buildings, universities and other public places around Portland. On May 11, the local FBI office said it had "stopped the sender or senders' ability to continue this stream of threats,” but didn’t say how. 

Hoax terror threats have been on the upswing in the past decade. Investigations by the Los Angeles Times and USA Today found hundreds of white-powder letters are investigated every year by the FBI and the U.S. Postal Service.

Carlson was an exception in that he got caught. Court records and Internet posts show Carlson to be a fan of Johnny Cash, using Cash's picture on a Twitter account and blog, where (the FBI says) he called himself "The Man in Black."

"Hi," began one batch of letters to U.S. senators. "If you just opened the envelope and pulled out this letter, you should know…that powdery stuff that just fell out of this letter along with my calling card is just cornstarch and celery salt. It won't hurt you, promise. =)"

The letters taunted the futility of official security measures: "You know how much this little hoax cost me to put on? About 60 bucks. How much will it cost the government? What if a lot of other people start getting ideas like this and implementing them? We can't afford that, can we?"

He also declared common cause with Anonymous and Occupy, but said he wasn't affiliated with either group. Police and prosecutors have alleged no connection between Carlson and the latest hoax letters.

In addition to the seven recent incidents, there were two such threats in Portland in the preceding year, according to Portland Fire & Rescue spokesman Paul Corah.

The costs are adding up. The L.A. Times investigation put national bioterrorism-preparedness costs at more than $50 billion since 9/11. The Portland Fire Bureau's full-time hazmat team—one of three in the metro area—was subsidized this year by a $23,000 federal grant.

Local numbers are harder to pin down. But Corah says the hoax letters divert the hazmat team from responding to real, life-threatening incidents such as chemical spills.

The letters are clearly accomplishing one goal: They have government workers on edge. Last week, the city's printing and distribution division published a flier instructing employees who spot a suspicious letter or package to evacuate the area, call 911 and wash their hands with soap and water.

Warning signs of a suspicious mail item, the flier says, include excessive postage or other indications that it may have been mailed from a foreign country, as well as a “strange odor” or “protruding wires.”