Editorial: When it works in real life as well as television
Michael Gold, Editor in Chief
HISTORIC CITY NEWS
Hollywood movie studios and every television network have a knack for resolving potentially life-threatening drama in just two hours — or less. Its one of those unexplainable phenomena that have always amazed me; like how people always seem to die in alphabetical order if you read obituaries.
Last Friday, Historic City News had its own Hollywood moment but it was not by our choice — or anyone else in our office building. We only have three people who work in our office and we all come and go on different schedules because most of what we do is carried out in the field. One of my chores is to collect the mail from the boxes in the lobby. With the exception of “junk mail”, the predecessor to spam, we get very few carrier delivered letters and that is by design.
So, when I picked up a business-sized envelope in our mail, I paid attention to it. I was actually planning to pitch it with the junk mail but for a couple of points of its appearance. First, it was hand-addressed and hand-stamped with first class postage. It had a return address in Mt. Airy, North Carolina — the real town that was the model for Mayberry RFD. The machine-cancelled postage was done in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Second, it was addressed to me personally at the office; which is unusual unless it is also addressed to “Historic City News”.
Finally, it was thick — not overstuffed, it weighed less than an ounce. But, because the way the letter was folded inside, it caused the sides of the envelope to stick out more than normal. And, it was a “security envelope”, the type that has inside tinting to prevent you from reading the contents without opening the letter.
Curiosity or habit made me pick up a pair of scissors and slice open the envelope. Holding the expanded letter from the front and rear caused pressure on the contents so that as I cut through the seal, a puff of black powder (not white as reported in the media) emitted from the opening, settling on my hands and desk.
I looked into the envelope, half expecting a prank, and saw about a pill-bottle’s worth of more finely ground powder, like graphite, mixed with some sort of black and silver shiny, metallic foil, maybe Mylar, punched into small particles like flakes of confetti. I could see the letter but could not read it without removing it from the envelope which would only further disperse the material inside.
The gravity of what was unfolding was still lost on me because, after all, this is St Augustine and nothing very serious ever happens here, right? None the less, I called the non-emergency number for the police department which is right around the corner. Mark Samson, who is the public information officer and who I have known since high school, told me matter-of-factly not to open the envelope any further and that a couple of officers would stop over and ask me some questions first, which got my attention. He asked me what the letter said, so why didn’t he want me to rip into the envelope and answer the question?
Corporal John Niederriter and two other officers arrived and spoke to me outside of the building just after noon. It was the last time I was allowed into my office for the next four hours. Commander Anthony Cuthbert was on the scene and explained procedurally what lay ahead.
I’ve known Anthony for a number of years and he has always shown a cool head, eye for detail, and, above all, the ability to communicate effectively — not only with fellow officers, but also with the public. That is clearly one of Anthony’s greatest strengths and one of the local police department’s greatest shortcomings, even though the city manager doesn’t see it that way.
The city has a fully staffed fire department, and Fire Chief J. C. Costeira was one of the first I saw to arrive. The city’s first responders trained in hazardous material handling, however, work with support from the county; primarily because of their access to better resources and equipment. St Johns County Fire Rescue responded to the Chief’s request for HAZ-MAT support with personnel and an emergency response vehicle that is a city-block long and can provide a mobile command center for methamphetamine lab decontamination and similar calls for service.
A team of two responders, fully suited in protective gear and breathing apparatus, entered our office, performed presumptive field tests, and collected several items of evidence for further examination, as tenants were being told to go back into their offices, and no one was being let into or out of the building. The entire parking lot had been cordoned off with crime scene tape and traffic cones.
Throughout the ordeal, never once did I think “These guys are taking too long” or “They just need to let me get back to work”. Was it a slow process, yes. But at no time during the course of the investigation process were our emergency responders sitting on their hands — they worked together with members of other responding agencies seamlessly and with a clear mission and singular purpose.
In the midst of the actual physical investigation, agents from the U.S. Postal Inspector’s office, Homeland Security, and the Special Agent in charge of the investigation from the FBI Regional Office in Jacksonville, were speaking to officers on the scene, potential witnesses in the building once it was cleared for re-entry, and, of course, to me.
By the time they got to me, the Federal agents already had a pretty good handle on the situation. Their questions were more specific and gave me an opportunity consider activities that may have led to the day’s incident. The police, fire-rescue and haz-mat team were all about making the site safe so that operations could return to normal. The federal officer’s focus, however, was keenly on identifying the person responsible for the crime. Let me say, with the information that they learned and will recover during crime lab testing, I have every expectation that they will identify the letter’s source.
Finally, there is the human side to all of this. I knew that these guys wanted to be anywhere but in the 100-degree heat, buried under hot uniforms and protective gear, laboring to complete a seemingly endless checklist of tasks that had to be completed and could only be completed one step at a time. The men and women who responded to this incident could not have shown me any more courtesy or consideration under the circumstances.
“Sorry you’ve had to stand out here for so long, Mr. Gold. Could I get you a chair?”
“I see you’re sweating as bad as us, Mr. Gold. Here’s a cold bottle of water to help you stay hydrated.”
Throughout my adult career, I’ve held positions that depended on my ability to protect the confidentiality of privileged information. I’ve also learned an important life lesson; although everyone has their right to privacy — that does not include the right to anonymity for their actions.
Nobody expects to ever find themselves the victim of a death threat, although I have. You don’t expect that one day someone you trusted and believed in would embarrass you by their own irresponsible, unexplainable, or even illegal actions, although I have. But, short of someone actually taking my life, no threat or attempt at intimidation is going to stay me from my responsibilities to be a vocal advocate for everyday citizens.
Thank you to all of those who helped me work through last Friday. Your kindness and professionalism did not go unnoticed. Also, thanks to all my co-tenants in the Historic Solla-Carcaba Building for your cooperation and patience as every step was taken to protect you from any danger. And a big thank you to all my friends and our readers who called, texted, or e-mailed to be sure I was still among the living. Much to the chagrin of some, I am happy to report that “yes” I am.