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Last Updated

13 Oct 2002

Source: The Times, Trenton (New Jersey), October 13, 2002.

Investigators gone, town remembers

By KEVIN SHEA

EWING - For a few days last October, the township's West Trenton neighborhood was the center of the government's investigation of the mailed anthrax attacks.

And Wynnewood Manor, a one-entrance development of post-World War II box homes off Lower Ferry Road was believed by federal agents to be the epicenter.

Wynnewood's mail carrier, Terri Heller (case 4), had skin anthrax, and federal investigators believed she may have contracted it on her route, perhaps by someone giving the letters directly to her as she delivered the mail.

So FBI agents and postal inspectors walked the neighborhood for days, going door to door in search of an interview with every resident.

Their questions ranged from normal detective talk, such as, "See anything suspicious, any out-of state plates?" to "Do you know any scientists?" Local newspaper reporters and national media, including CNN, walked behind the dark-suited agents, hoping to hear a bit of the conversation.

Residents Bob Geller and next-door neighbor Charlotte Kaplan-Piepszak walked around their neighborhood that day in amazement. "In our little village," Geller said, shaking his head, "It's staggering."

Farther up the road, at the West Trenton Post Office where Heller worked, the media had the small building staked out for days, awaiting health inspectors or authorities and filming or photographing the morning departure of mail trucks and their return in the afternoon.

Letter carriers admitted they were scared and stunned, but they vowed to press on and not to let whoever planted the anthrax letters stop them from completing their appointed rounds.

Elsewhere in the West Trenton area, agents removed mail drop boxes and researched all the businesses and other addresses - 570 in all - on Heller's route along Lower Ferry Road.

The next week, a supervisor in what was a growing multijurisdictional task force of federal agents would proclaim at a town meeting at Ewing High School that Heller got anthrax from cross-contamination.

Further testing at the Hamilton facility would find anthrax infestation. (The Hamilton facility is still shuttered and wrapped in plastic awaiting a massive decontamination.)

As more tainted letters surfaced, the investigatory scope widened and the nearly 50 local post offices that feed Hamilton - from Blawenburg in Montgomery to Cream Ridge in Upper Freehold - would be tested. Four would show traces, again believed to be cross-contamination.

Wynnewood Manor faded from the headlines as quickly as it appeared and two rounds of swabbing for anthrax at the West Trenton Post Office came back with negative results. Mail carriers went about their routes but also went on antibiotics - just in case.

Wynnewood residents say things are normal again and Heller is the only one who goes door to door these days.

"We very seldom bring it up," Geller said last week. "It took a couple of months before we started to forget about it though."

Geller and other residents last fall described Heller as the blonde letter carrier who always waved and smiled. Sweet, cheery and efficient too, they said.

One year, she put Halloween candy in the mailboxes of residents with children.

Heller said last week she has been delivering mail in Wynnewood for about four years and when she returned last year, her neighbors were sweet right back.

"They were all happy to see me," Heller said. "Some had sent me cards while I was out."

Unfortunately, Geller said, the instant he sees Heller these days, anthrax pops into his mind. "For just an instant," he said. But Heller is also a symbol of toughness to him.

"She's there every day. She's the same person she was," Geller said. "And it's back to being quiet around here. It's really back to normal."

Kaplan-Piepszak hasn't given anthrax much thought since last year and is just happy Heller comes by every day. "I didn't have much fear of (anthrax)," she said.