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Berkeley County office building evacuated after powder 'hoax'

August 20, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Berkeley County's administrative office building in Martinsburg was evacuated Friday morning after an employee discovered white powder, later determined to be a sweetener, in an envelope, according to police and county officials.

Berkeley County Fire Board office administrator Donna Cross said she told the staff member who opened the envelope in the office at 400 W. Stephen St. to lay it on the desk and go wash her hands.

"It was a little scary this morning," Cross said.

Officers from the Martinsburg Police Department, Martinsburg Fire Department, and Berkeley County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management responded (OHSEM) at 7:53 a.m., police and fire officials said.

The building was evacuated for about an hour until the substance was removed, and preliminary tests revealed the substance was believed to a dextrose-based sweetener, police and emergency officials said.

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Martinsburg Police Department said in a news release that the FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service had been contacted to help investigate what Berkeley County Commissioner William L. "Bill" Stubblefield described as a "very, very bad hoax."

"Obviously, the lady that opened the envelope was very nervous," Stubblefield said.

Cross said she and other Fire Board administrative staff members have been coming in early to open mail during the office's "busy season."

Last month, the Fire Board sent out about 36,000 fire fee bills to property owners, Cross said.

Given the timing of the discovery, Cross said the disruption to other county offices on the second floor of the Dunn building and to faculty, staff and students of Blue Ridge Community and Technical College, which leases first-floor space from the county, was less significant.

"I hope they do find who did it, I really do," Cross said.

Stubblefield, who arrived shortly after the building was evacuated, said people appeared to remain calm and listened to the directions of Martinsburg Police Department officers.

"Everybody was doing what they were supposed to do," Stubblefield said.

Stubblefield said he understood the envelope in question was business-size and contained another handmade envelope, which contained the powder.

Members of the county's hazardous materials team -- donning protective clothing, boots and gloves -- entered the evacuated building, took a sample of the powder and analyzed it with a Raman-technology equipped spectrometer, Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Stephen S. Allen said.

Dextrose-based sweeteners include products such as Sweet'N Low or Splenda, Allen said.

The sample analyzed was turned over to police, Allen said.

Stubblefield said it would be difficult to implement a mail security plan for the county building given the fact that so many of the envelopes received there contain money. The Dunn building houses the Sheriff's tax office, Assessor's office, Emergency Ambulance Authority and the county's Land Use, Planning and Engineering department, among other agencies.

Stubblefield, while hopeful the incident is isolated, said he recognizes the need to do everything possible to protect county employees from exposure to future danger.

Anyone with information regarding the incident may contact the Martinsburg Police Department at 304-264-2100.

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