WHERE ANTHRAX TERROR MAY HAVE STARTED



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Last Updated

19 May 2003

Source: The Trentonian (NJ), May 19, 2003

From Md. to Hamilton? Where anthrax terror may have started

CHARLES WEBSTER, Staff Writer

FREDERICK, Md. - It's a narrow, winding stretch of road that snakes its way up the mountains, just north of here.

Twisting and turning through the dense woods, the road has little room for sightseers to pull off, so small parking areas for hikers and a couple of overlooks have been built by the parks department.

Somewhere in these woods lies a pond that may hold the secret to the angst of distant Hamilton Township, New Jersey.

If the pond gives up its secrets, authorities are hoping to learn, finally, how the anthrax that infected the Hamilton post office came to be placed in envelopes, to end up in New Jersey at the John K. Rafferty postal facility.

The inconspicuous pond is a 10-mile ride out of town into the woods in the Catoctin mountains, the foothills to the Appalachians in central Maryland.

A short ride out West Patrick Street in Frederick takes you out of the downtown and onto what locals refer to as the Golden Mile - a mile-long stretch of shopping centers, malls, eateries, car dealers and the like. But the end of the Golden Mile also represents the end of civilization for Fredericktonians

A few hundred yards out from the shopping area starts your journey into the wooded areas of Gambrill State Park and onto the Frederick Water Conservation area that makes up the municipal forest.

Four miles up the mountain road brings you to the end of the Gambrill State Park, and the beginning of the Frederick Municipal Forest and a stark difference in the view.

The Frederick Municipal Forest is a place where locals dump things - old refrigerators, gas grills, 55-gallon drums, whatever can be thrown in the back of the pick-up truck and dumped off without being detected can be seen from the road. The forest seemingly gets little attention from law enforcement.

Small dirt roads invite you to go deeper into the woods to explore the 8,000-acre forest.

Traversing the dirt roads are somewhat treacherous on dry days with ruts, gravel and even an errant creek can slow drivers down.

The road is the dividing line between the conservation area and public property in Frederick County.

Along the road is a dense forest of trees on one side, and on the other are a mix of old sportsmen cabins, trailer homes and large new homes almost hidden from the road.

The properties are spaced far enough away that you would opt to get in your car to go visit a neighbor.

As you begin to reach the top of the mountain, and houses on the left hand side of the road get bigger, a graveled parking area for about 10 or 12 cars suddenly appears on your right side.

Parking here begins your journey in the search for answers into the killer anthrax letters mailed from the Hamilton Township postal facility that has been closed since October 2001, after several letters laced with anthrax were sent through that facility.

A freshly cut road through the forest is all that remains of the FBI's investigation that focused on that spot back in December and January, and which could be the scene for additional clues as the investigation continues.

"When the investigation started focusing on where the anthrax originated it turned to Frederick and Fort Detrick, and the FBI told us that they would be investigating a number of leads, as many as 20 different leads," Frederick Mayor JenniferDoughtery said. "That many people, or many places -- we knew that."

Fort Detrick is home to the army's research institute of infectious diseases -- better known as its bio-weapons lab. It is adjacent to the northern boundary of the city of Frederick.

A short walk down that freshly cut road off Gambrill Park Road leads to nothing more than a non-descript fishing pond about an acre in size, and about 10 feet at its deepest point.

Several other ponds located only a few dozen yards away are also part of the mystery that may hold the key to the secrets behind the anthrax-laden letters.

The other ponds are smaller, and at least one of the ponds was tagged for stocking back in March, prior to the opening day of fishing season last month.

On one pond a man was seen sitting in a chair, fishing pole in hand and passing the time. He hadn't caught anything yet, he said.

Prior to the FBI's investigation at the ponds they informed Frederick's Police Chief Kim Dine of their interest in the ponds.

He had had dealings with the FBI in the past, but not in Frederick.

After more than 27 years with the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, Dine took over as Frederick's police chief in July 2002, and six months later his jurisdiction was the focus of an interest FBI probe.

"I'm in direct contact with them on a regular basis," explained Dine. "From time to time they give me a call to tell me something or they'll call and say they want to come down and give me a briefing. They'll talk about a direction they want to go ion or stuff like that."

During the FBI's initial investigation in December and January a box was discovered in one of the ponds, according to a Washington Post report earlier this month.

The article revealed that the box could have been used to safely manipulate the deadly anthrax underwater in one of the ponds.

The box was described as a laboratory type box that had holes for gloves. The type used in laboratories where researchers don't want to be contaminated by a toxic substance.

The box is of interest to the FBI, according to the Washington Post article, and they want to further investigate what other clues may be hiding at the bottom of the pond.

The FBI has told Frederick officials that they may drain one of the ponds in the Frederick Municipal Forest, but local officials are quick to add that it's only an idea.

"It's something they're considering," explained Nancy Gregg Poss, Frederick's public information officer. "They haven't given us any timetable. They have said they are definitely going to do it. All the FBI has said is that it's something they're considering."

"The one thing that the FBI was unequivocal about, so far, is that they have found nothing thus far in their investigation here in Frederick that would indicate any danger to any person or any body of water," Dine said.

"Most people are staying pretty calm and cool about this," said MayorDougherty said. "That is credited to two things. The FBI are briefing us and keeping us informed of their activities."

"We live with Fort Dettrick everyday, so what else is there to be afraid of around here," said Jonathan Prins, 40, of Frederick.

"It's up in the woods, I'm not bothered by it at all really," reasoned Randy Wright, 35, of Frederick. "I haven't even thought much about it. I was more worried about the sniper case last year -- 10 times more worried."

Last year's sniper case in the Washington DC and suburban Maryland region was a real nightmare for most residents.

"I'm concerned but what can I do?" said Bob Barnes, 70, who lives in a house that is literally just over the boundary between the municipally owned forest and his unincorporated area within Frederick County. "The authorities don't tell me anything and the papers tell us not to worry -- what can I do?"

Barnes lives just yards away from the city reservoir that is fed by a series of streams, creeks and run offs that run through the forest.

He said he turned off his water connection from that city reservoir and started tapping into his well water after learning of the discovery of the box in one of the ponds, but realized the well water might pose more problems for him and his family so he switched back to city water.

"They did extensive testing when they went into the water, when they came out of the water, so I think people feel good about that, because the water was tested much more then it ever would have been," Dine added. "Right now we haven't been told there are any problems at all."

For now, Frederick officials wait to hear from the FBI. The Washington Post article said the FBI would begin draining the pond up on the mountain in the forest on June 1. But city officials insist the FBI has not given them any indication that that would be happening.

Poss said if the FBI drains the largest pond that was part of last fall's probe, the logistics of draining the thousands of gallons of water out has not been a topic of conversation.

The largest of the ponds searched during the probe is spring-fed, about an acre in size and 10 feet at its deepest point. Presenting a series of logistical dilemmas, that according to Poss would be resolved by the FBI before the draining began.

Meanwhile, city officials and residents are taking their newfound fame in stride and going about their lives like nothing is new.

Fort Detrick is still operating, the ponds are still flowing, and Frederick is as vibrant a city today, as it was last year before the FBI decided to take a dive in a few ponds off a lonely stretch of road up in the mountains.

"Frederick's a sophisticated place," Dine reasoned. "It has its own charm and it is, in its own way, far away from every place, but not so far away that it doesn't have the level of sophistication to taken it in."