It looked like one of those typically cryptic personal messages that often run in the classified advertisements sections of newspapers.
"Breeders," it began. "If you're for real send one of your little friends."
The tiny, half-inch advertisement that began running Monday in The Times carried a post office box number, a telephone number and one additional message: "We want to talk. Call John at USDA."
The John in the message is an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the advertisement is the latest effort by authorities to determine if a mysterious group called the Breeders actually exists.
The Breeders surfaced in early December, claiming responsibility for spreading Mediterranean fruit flies through Southern California in a plot to "make the Medfly 'problem' unmanageable and aerial spraying politically and financially intolerable." The scheme was outlined in a letter, signed only by the "Breeders" and sent to Mayor Tom Bradley, agriculture officials and various media outlets.
Los Angeles police investigators, the FBI and agriculture officials have been unable to determine if the letter is a hoax, but one state official said, "We're taking it all very seriously."
The advertisement trying to contact the Breeders is apparently a response to one section in the Breeders' letter stating that any messages for them should be left in The Times classifieds.
"We are under no obligation to reply, and our position is absolutely non-negotiable," the Breeders stated. "Every time the copters go up to spray, we'll go into virgin territory or old Medfly problem areas and release a minimum of several thousand blue-eyed Medflies. We are organized, patient and determined."
Another law enforcement agency is also believed to have appealed to the group months ago through a classified ad, apparently to no avail. Times reporters also placed a classified ad seeking contact with the group but received no response.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture declined to comment on the advertisement and referred press inquiries to Cmdr. William Booth, spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department. Booth also declined to say anything about the investigation or how many responses, if any, have been received.
"It is still an investigation of considerable priority," he said.
Some credence has been lent to the possibility a group such as the Breeders might exist by the unusual characteristics of Southern California's Medfly infestation.
County fly trappers have found far fewer larvae than expected in an infestation this large, and the discovery of new adult flies often have occurred just outside of the infestation boundaries, forcing a steady expansion of the spraying zone.
The December letter from the Breeders stated: "State officials have probably noticed an increase as well as an unusual distribution of the Medfly infestation in Los Angeles County since March, 1989." The Breeders also threatened to spread the flies to the farm-rich San Joaquin Valley if aerial spraying is not stopped. As yet, no fertile flies have been trapped in the valley.
Many officials, however, are skeptical. To begin with, if such a group was really intent on making the Medfly problem unmanageable, one county official asked, why hasn't it spread the fly to farther areas?
In addition, the plot as described seems too convoluted and bizarre. But, the official added: "You got 8 1/2 million people out there. You never know, there's always the chance that someone out there has a loose screw."
Regardless of whether the group exists, the mere possibility has forced officials to become a bit more cautious in their campaign against the Medfly.
On Thursday, Isi Siddiqui, assistant director of the state Department of Food and Agriculture, announced that, after a two-week delay, malathion spraying will begin Feb. 15 in Pomona.
The state typically has ordered spraying shortly after a new find. But E. Leon Spaugy, the county agricultural commissioner, said spraying was delayed partly because officials were uncertain whether the flies trapped two weeks ago on the Cal Poly Pomona campus were real or simply preserved specimens that someone purposely placed in the traps.
"We're always cognizant of the Breeders thing," Spaugy said. "We wanted to make sure these were really wild flies. We can't afford to start a new treatment area until we know what we've got."