By: Mark Fitzgerald
For a harrowing 10 hours last Thursday, the offices of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle in Cheyenne were sealed off while authorities tried to determine the danger posed by powder that spilled from a profanity-laden letter threatening the life of Gov. Dave Freudenthal.
Editor D. Reed Eckhardt, who happened to come in the back door a little before 9 a.m., just as police were sealing the front, presided over a newsroom of a few reporters who happened to show up early for work. Calling reporters and photographers outside the building, they attempted to put the story together — while wondering whether they had been exposed to anthrax or ricin.
Ten employees who actually or potentially exposed to the powder — which spilled when one of three suspicious letters was opened and brought to the paper’s business offices — were evacuated in the first minutes of the incident. They were decontaminated at the county health department, the paper reported.
“It was a weird day, obviously,” Eckhardt said by telephone Monday.
A 48-year-old Cheyenne man, John Willett, was convinced to surrender late Saturday night by a Laramie County sheriff’s deputy who had known him since childhood. Willett, who apparently was angered by a dispute with a local construction company, faces federal charges of mailing threatening communications and making a false threat to injure.
Eckhardt said he himself was not especially worried during the ordeal, and other staff took comfort in the fact that the threats were not directed at the newspaper. A concern as time went on, he said, was getting a copy editor to move the news that reporters were gathering.
Threatening letters were also sent to a local TV station and the governor’s office, though neither was opened.
“Fortunately at about 1 p.m. [law enforcement] said [employees] would be permitted in so long as they realized they could not come back out,” he said. At about 6:30 p.m., the lockdown was lifted as it became clear the powder, whatever it was, was not hazardous.
The paper faced one more hurdle, though. “We negotiated with the FBI over what to publish of the letter,” Eckhardt said. “We wanted to publish as much as possible as soon as possible, and of course the FBI didn’t want us to. They thought they were close to locating the guy, and didn’t want to do anything to tip him off.”
In the end, the paper published a long excerpt that was edited mainly to eliminate its numerous profanities.
With all the problems, the Friday edition of the paper was only 20 minutes late to press, Eckhardt said.