“Black Death” Letters Puzzle UCI
On Monday, two letters were found. One was sent to a professor of chemical engineering and materials science and the other was sent to a professor of Chicano and Latino studies.
A Zot Alert was sent out to students reading, “Two letters containing white powder with words ‘Black Death’ received today. Use caution opening mail. Call 911 to report suspicious mail.”
According to Orange County Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael Boyle, the first incident occurred in the morning. The faculty member was opening a letter when she discovered that there was white powder inside of the envelope.
The bomb squad was called in along with an Orange County hazardous materials team and the letter was tested on-site to determine whether it was bio-hazardous, which it was not.
“I think there will be more letters; I think we will be back,” Boyle said on Monday.
Authorities were puzzled as to why the letters were sent. Their destination was almost as peculiar as their return address.
“Why here?” UCI public information officer Tom Vasich said, “Why UCI? It seems so random.”
The following day, Tuesday Jan. 5, another letter was found in the Information and Computer Science building, again to a female faculty member. At that time, according to Vasich, the fact that all faculty targeted thus far were female was the only lead investigators had. But the next day this would change.
Tuesday night, another letter was found around 5 o’clock and by Wednesday evening, one more letter had been discovered, one of which was sent to a male associate professor in the arts department. The possible connection was broken and the letter count was at five.
The same precautionary measures were taken, despite the last 4 letters being non-hazardous. Police, firefighters and the hazardous materials team surrounded the area to test and dispose of the letter appropriately.
Authorities questioned whether or not the letters were sent the same day and why their discoveries were so separated.
“Well Monday, for a lot of professors, was their first day back after the holiday,” said Penny White, head of Distribution and Document Management (DDM) at UCI, “and if they had a lot of mail, they might have set aside some of it for later which could explain them getting the mail on different days.”
DDM is taking some extra precautionary measures in order to keep the campus as safe as possible. There are now plastic bags available at every one of the 225 mail stops on campus for faculty and others to put suspicious letters in to be examined by authorities.
In addition to the extra measures, the DDM team also has several tools inside the mail room for suspicious mail. Suspicious mail includes anything without a return address, anything where the postmark does not match the return address or anything appearing to be written in anger.
The mail room facility has a tool to remove any powder or loose material inside of an envelope away from the opener and an X-ray machine for small parcels. Despite the tools, White says that out of the 7,000 to 10,000 pieces of mail that UCI receives per day, very few letters are considered suspicious.
“It varies on the day,” White said. “Today we only had one.”
Investigators include UCI Police, the FBI and postal inspectors. Many details remain undisclosed as they continue to search for the sender of the mysterious letters.
“Students need to be cautious with any suspicious packages or anything,” Boyle said. “Even if a backpack or something is left alone in the park with no one near it, that would be considered suspicious and may merit alerting the authorities. So far these letters have proven to be a hoax but we still need to take caution. Especially with everyone in a hoax mind set, there is the potential for real danger.”