Man Held in Anthrax Threat to Courthouse
A self-employed accountant from Calabasas was arrested Wednesday and charged with claiming that anthrax had been released in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Woodland Hills, one of nearly two dozen such scares in the Southland over the last several months.
Harvey Craig Spelkin, 53, is accused of calling the court Dec. 18 and claiming to have released the deadly biotoxin into the air-conditioning system of the building, where he was involved in a bankruptcy proceeding scheduled that day.
As a result, nearly 100 workers were evacuated from the Warner Center building and left to wait in the cold while hazardous-materials experts checked the building.
Authorities said the incident was a hoax, and that there was no evidence that Spelkin had the means to carry out his threat. Nonetheless, such incidents can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Spelkin is not a suspect in 19 other incidents in Southern California since Oct. 21, said John H. Schiman, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office.
According to the criminal complaint filed Wednesday, Spelkin was due in court Dec. 18 to answer a trustee’s charge of embezzlement and perjury. Spelkin had “repeatedly [and] intentionally missed required court dates relating to the bankruptcy of a company with which he had been involved,” according to the complaint. The court appearance was a hearing to determine sanctions against Spelkin.
Spelkin was interviewed by an agent at FBI headquarters after the threat, the complaint says. He told an agent “he had attempted to postpone the hearing date in the past but was unsuccessful. Spelkin believed he needed more time to prepare for the hearing but the court would not permit additional time.”
On his way to the courthouse, according to court records, Spelkin told the FBI agent he had “stopped by the side of the road and called the courthouse from a pay phone . . . then said words to the effect, ‘You should check the air-conditioning system for possible anthrax.’ Spelkin then hung up the phone.”
Spelkin also told the agent that about five minutes later he dialed the number again and said, “The previous call was a hoax. There is no danger.” But no record of a second call exists, authorities said.
He was charged under the federal Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989. Under federal law, threatening an anthrax attack is punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison. If someone died of a heart attack brought on by a hoax, the perpetrator would face capital murder charges, Schiman said.
“These threats have caused extreme anxiety,” Schiman said at a news conference announcing Spelkin’s arrest.
LAPD Cmdr. Bruce E. Hagerty added: “Hopefully, this will serve as an example” to others who are making false threats. “It’s not a game. It’s real.”
Schiman said members of the Los Angeles Task Force on Terrorism became aware of Spelkin because of his involvement with the pending bankruptcy case.
But Schiman declined to say what set Spelkin apart from others who might have had matters before the court or what behavior, if any, drew further scrutiny. He also declined to provide details about the bankruptcy case.
A woman who identified herself as Spelkin’s wife was on the verge of tears Wednesday when she answered the phone at the couple’s Calabasas home.
“This is too bizarre for words. . . . I don’t know anything about this,” said the woman, who refused to give her first name. “My husband is a family man.”
Spelkin was released Wednesday on $50,000 bond. The judge ordered him to return for arraignment on Jan. 14 and suggested that he get psychological help.
Nationwide, the FBI has investigated dozens of anthrax threats in recent months. In Southern California, there have been 20 since Oct. 21., all of them hoaxes. Anthrax spores can cause respiratory failure and even death if left untreated.
The hoaxes have cost local authorities millions of dollars. In each of the responses, the FBI and local health and public safety agencies have sent as many as 150 people to the scene.
In recent days, federal and local authorities had intensified their efforts to track down the culprits in the string of hoaxes, and said the first person convicted could suffer serious consequences as a deterrent to others.
Schiman said there are at least “six or seven open cases” in which the FBI is pursuing suspects and analyzing envelopes and other pieces of evidence.
This month, there have been seven hoaxes in the Southland involving a threat of anthrax release.
Times staff writers David Rosenzweig, Josh Meyer and Michael Luo contributed to this story.