White powder case costs millions in first response

Federal authorities are tracking what they call the most prolific mailer of white powder in U.S. history with an eye toward solving a case that has tied up first responders and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Officials with the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service believe the same person has sent nearly 400 letters containing nontoxic white powder across the U.S. and abroad from Texas.

A day after upping the reward in the case from $100,000 to $150,000, officials stressed that each incident diverts police, fire personnel and other valuable resources from genuine emergencies, increasing the urgency of finding the perpetrator.

"We're certainly hopeful that someone will do the right thing and come forward, even if it's just to allow these first responders to do what they're supposed to do," said Amanda McMurrey, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Authorities increased the reward in the ongoing investigation after the suspect sent out another batch of letters, some targeting schools. However, McMurrey said two suspicious letters reported Thursday in the Dallas area, including one at the federal court house, weren't connected to the case.

According to the FBI, the computer-generated letters can be linked through similar phrases, including repeated references to subjects such as al Qaeda and the Nazi SS, apparently for shock value. However, the author has taken steps to hide his identity, including avoiding leaving fingerprints, the FBI said.

McMurrey said most of the letters went through the same suburban Dallas postal center, meaning they were mailed from one of four ZIP codes in the area.

Investigators also found similarities in the way the letters were addressed and what was inside, she said.

"This person is very particular in how he mails (his letters), and we are able to identify him based on the internal workings of the envelopes," McMurrey said, declining to elaborate on what the evidence shows.

Postal processing plants have biohazard detection systems that can find toxic substances, but first responders are typically called when letters with white powder are delivered — a result of the anthrax attacks in 2001.

"It's an expensive response, but necessary in today's world," McMurrey said.

Jason Evans, a spokesman for the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department, said hazardous material teams of 10 to 16 respond to white powder calls. Each response, which can last about two hours, requires about $1,500 an hour in fuel and other equipment-related costs on top of salaries, Evans said.

McMurrey said officials believe they are tracking the most severe white powder case since Richard Goyette was found to have sent 65 threatening hoax letters to banks and federal offices in 2008.

Goyette, also known as Michael Jurek, was sentenced to nearly four years in prison, fined $5,000 and ordered to pay $87,734 in restitution after pleading guilty to two counts of sending threatening material through the mail.