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Second suspicious package at church

March 14, 1998

By MARLO BARNHART

Staff Writer

A suspicious package found in a doorway at First Baptist Church Friday morning prompted the partial evacuation of a building across the street and the rerouting of downtown traffic.

Bomb technicians later determined the package was empty.

"This is the second suspicious package in a week," said Tina Rhodes, secretary at the 15 High St. church that faces on U.S. 40 at Washington Square.

The packages - both wrapped as gifts - coupled with threatening phone calls coming into the church recently, have Rhodes and others at the church worried.

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"The phone calls have a message of hating churches and someone saying they will kill us. We don't know if it's a kid or what," Rhodes said.

No chances were taken Friday when a church employee found the shoebox-sized package wrapped in cow motif paper in the stairwell of a little-used service door at 9:15 a.m.

Representatives of the Hagerstown and state fire marshal offices, local firefighters and police cordoned off the area and summoned fire police to reroute traffic.

Traffic trying to get through Hagerstown from the West End backed up and spilled onto side streets throughout the two-hour operation.

About 40 people were evacuated from apartments and a pet grooming business facing the church on U.S. 40.

State Fire Marshal Jim Woods donned full bomb technician gear just after 11 a.m. and headed down the stairwell to visually check the box.

Less than a moment later he emerged, consulted briefly with his colleagues and returned to the stairwell. Seconds later, he yelled out that the box was empty.

Hagerstown Fire Marshal John Hersh immediately headed into the stairwell with his fingerprinting equipment, hoping he would be able to get some evidence that might lead to the person who placed this latest box at the doorway.

The Rev. Eddie Blackmon said he doesn't believe these incidents - the packages and the phone calls - are part of a "larger picture."

He was referring to recent arsons at Baptist churches in the Pittsburgh area. And he also doesn't think there's a connection to the strong stand First Baptist members took recently by subscribing to a boycott of Disney products over family values issues.

"We're being very cautious and taking these things very seriously though," Blackmon said. The church is working closely with police and fire marshals, he said.

Federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were called to the scene but later left and are not assisting with the investigation, police said.

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