It was early evening on the tenth of December, in the year 2001. I was working in my one-room office in a nondescript building in Pasadena, California, when a stranger appeared at the door. He was a police officer, a large man with an imposing dark uniform and a shiny badge. Several alien and lethal-looking objects hung from his belt. He asked, “Is this Kham Aid Foundation?”
Kham Aid Foundation was a nonprofit I had created to do projects helping Tibetans in China. We did development and humanitarian assistance work on the eastern Tibetan plateau, a region known as Kham. We were a shoestring outfit, and we conducted virtually all of our business by mail, telephone, and internet. It was weird for anyone to come to the office, especially a cop.
“Yes?” I answered, confused.
“Have you mailed any packages recently?”
This was winter, a poor time for field work in Tibet due to the cold weather and sketchy travel conditions. In winter I usually came home to California, where I worked churning out reports, raising money, updating our website, and planning next year’s projects.
Another thing I did in winter was to look after KhamAid’s on-line store, where we flogged books about Kham, greeting cards with pictures of Kham on them, and anything else I could lay hands on related to Kham that I thought people might like to buy. The store brought in a few hundred dollars of profit a year, which wasn’t a lot, but they were unrestricted funds we could spend on expenses such as office rent and insurance that donors weren’t keen on.
Because of this retail operation, I frequently mailed out small parcels. Could the officer be asking about one of those? But which one? And why?
“We do mail packages,” I stalled, trying to remember what orders I had filled recently, but drawing a blank. “We sell stuff to get money for our nonprofit work.”
“What did you mail?”
I had the computer in front of me, so it was easy to pull up the record. “Greeting cards,” I said, “to a guy in Moorpark. Why do you want to know?”
The officer hemmed and hawed, asking more questions about the package, its size and weight and so forth, until he finally blurted: “Did you put anthrax in it?”
Flashback to three months earlier: September 11, 2001. I had been doing field work to distribute wheelchairs to disabled Tibetans and was on my way home, stopping in the city of Chengdu for a few days. Getting a terrifying phone call from the fiancé of one of our volunteers saying that America was under attack. Going to a hotel lounge to look at CNN. Watching the Twin Towers fall. My flight home cancelled, stranding me in China for a week. Finally arriving home to a wounded nation where flags flew from every porch.
If Americans weren’t already terrorized by the events on September 11th, right after that, twenty-two people were sickened by anthrax spores sent through the mail, and five died. A nationwide criminal investigation was launched to find the terrorist who sent the anthrax-poisoned letters. No one knew where he would strike next. Across the country, on every TV channel, authorities warned Americans to watch out for unexpected, bulky envelopes having Arabic writing and too much postage on them.
On that same December day, at about 3pm, a young boy living in a leafy enclave of Moorpark, California had come home from school to find just such an envelope leaning against the front door of his father’s two-story Mediterranean style home. Except, well, it wasn’t Arabic on the envelope. It was the Tibetan script that made up KhamAid’s logo. But the boy didn’t know that. He just knew it looked suspicious. He picked up the envelope by one corner and brought it inside.
His father, a red-haired 40-something businessman named Steve Dooner, was in the living room talking on his cell phone. The boy held up the package, saying: “Dad, this was leaning up against the door.”
Still on the phone, Dooner took the envelope and examined it. It was nine by twelve inches, padded and lumpy. “Can I call you back?” he said to the phone. “It’ll just be a few minutes.”
Dooner put down his phone and peered at the package. His address was laser-printed on a sticker stuck to the envelope, because that was how Kham Aid Foundation did things: clean and professional-looking. The envelope had a motley collection of postage stamps on it, for I had not yet signed up for e-postage. He added up the amount: $3.75? That seemed excessive for such a light envelope.
I had met Dooner on a dating website; we had gone out once or twice. The dating wasn’t going anywhere, but as a nice gesture he had ordered some greeting cards. Dooner didn’t know the name of my organization, and by now he’d completely forgotten that he’d placed the order. He stared at KhamAid’s logo and the return address in Pasadena, but they didn’t ring a bell. Then he saw there was no postmark on the envelope. His eyebrows shot up.
“My teacher told us to look out for weird envelopes with Arabic on them,” the boy said proudly. “Can we call the FBI?”
“Not yet,” Dooner said. “First, I’m going to call the post office.”
Very carefully, he put the package down on the floor, leaning it against a wooden carousel horse that adorned the room. Then he backed away.
After several minutes of struggle, Dooner connected to an actual human at the U.S. Postal Service. They asked him a lot of questions like, did he recognize the return address? Were there any misspellings on the envelope? Was it leaking any powdery substances? After getting his answers, they told him to hang up and call the police.
The police dispatcher asked all the same questions, then added, “Can you think of anyone who might want to harm you?”
“I dunno,” Dooner said. “I work in entertainment. I can’t think of anyone.”
“You work in Hollywood?”
“You could say that, yes.”
They put him through to the Fire Department.
The dispatcher at the Ventura County Fire Protection District asked all the same questions and got all the same answers. She said, “Is anyone there in your house besides you and your son?”
Her voice was careful and upbeat. “Okay, good,” she said. “Take him and go outside in front of your house. Leave the package inside. A truck will be there soon.”
The nearest fire station was less than a mile away. At 3:26pm a yellow fire engine came purring up, lights flashing but siren turned off, accompanied by a Fire Department car. They pulled up in front of Dooner’s house, blocking the driveway.
Dooner saw the battalion chief getting out of the car and was starting to approach him when the chief’s hand went up, palm forward. “Stop right there!” the chief shouted.
Dooner froze in his tracks, tightly gripping his son’s hand. From twenty feet away, the chief called out, “Are you Steve Dooner?”
Dooner replied in the affirmative. Some of the fire fighters were strapping on respirators and zipping themselves up inside yellow Vychem hazmat suits. Another one was pulling out a length of coiled rope.
The battalion chief began interrogating Dooner about the package. One of the hazmat responders, sealed inside a Vychem suit, approached Dooner with a plastic squeeze bottle, making Darth Vader sucking sounds as he breathed through his respirator. He squirted alcohol-scented gel all over the arms of Dooner and his son while Dooner shouted back answers to the chief’s questions.
While this was going on, a couple of police cars glided up, lights flashing. They pulled up behind the fire engine. Dooner’s street was a leafy suburban lane with large, newish homes packed close together behind tidy, square front lawns. The flashing lights made it look like a murder scene, a major drug bust, or perhaps a movie shoot. Dooner could see some of his neighbors peering from their windows.
Two of the fire-fighters dressed in yellow space suits were now tied in to the rope. As Dooner and his son watched, a third firefighter, also in a suit, belayed them into his house. The crunch of their footsteps and sucking sound of their respirators faded away as they passed through the front door and disappeared.
“What’s the rope for?” asked Dooner.
“It’s so if they collapse from anthrax, we can pull them out.”
“Won’t that expose all of us to anthrax?” Dooner asked.
The face of the battalion chief had a momentary d’oh! look on it before he regained his cool. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “They are very well trained.”
After a few moments the men came out. Another hazmat guy quickly trotted over and squirted gel over their gloved hands. Then they approached the battalion chief.
“Mummph, mummph, mummph,” said one of the fire fighters through his respirator and hood.
“What?” said the battalion chief.
“Mummph, mummph, mummph.”
“Take off the mask!” said the battalion chief.
The firefighter unzipped his hood and pulled off his mask. “We found the envelope right where he said it would be,” he said. “We checked it out. Can’t tell what’s inside it. But I don’t like the way it feels.”
The other fire fighter had removed his hood and mask as well. “We need to do a swipe on the outside before we go any further.”
The battalion chief went back to his car and got on the radio. The others opened up another compartment on the fire engine and began pulling out more gear. They sealed themselves back up inside the suits and carried the kit into the house.
Meanwhile a couple of sheriff’s deputies were going up and down the street knocking on doors and telling neighbors to stay indoors and not use any cell phones, cordless phones, or garage door openers. Two more deputies stayed behind in their squad car. One of these now approached Dooner. “We did a background check on you,” he said. “And we’re wondering about this restraining order you’ve got against a guy named Ghorbani.”1
Dooner was embarrassed, but under the circumstances there was no dodging the question. “My wife and I are getting a divorce,” he said. “It’s been a little unpleasant. Ghorbani is a friend of hers. He said some weird things, so I got an order to keep him away from my house.”
“Is that an Arab name?”
The two deputies looked at each other; then one of them abruptly wheeled around and raced back to his car. He slammed the door shut and Dooner could hear him talking urgently into his radio.
The hazmat guys emerged from the house and announced that the outside of the envelope was clean. At this moment, which was 5:15 pm, Dooner’s daughter came walking down the street, walking home from school.
When she saw all of the flashing lights and emergency vehicles parked in front of her house, she broke into a run, but a deputy popped out from a neighbor’s house and grabbed her before she could come close. The neighbor came out close on the heels of the deputy. “Don’t worry, Steve!” the neighbor called out to Dooner, putting a protective arm around Dooner’s daughter. “We’ll take care of her!”
Did the neighbor know something that Dooner didn’t? The girl looked terrified.
“It’s okay, honey!” Dooner shouted. “We got a strange envelope in the mail and these guys are checking it.” Before his daughter could respond, another truck came gliding up the street. It wheezed to a halt next to the fire engine.
Dooner lived in a world steeped in fantasy, where magic happened every day and people could defy gravity. He was very capable of suspending disbelief, but this ride was getting to be too wild. “Who’s that?” he asked the battalion chief.
Two men got out and began unloading boxes of equipment and a dolly from the back of their truck. “What’s all that?” Dooner asked.
“That’s an X-ray machine,” said the battalion chief, pointing to a couple of heavy-duty plastic cases. “And that,” he said, indicating a steel cube, “is a blast containment vessel.”
Dooner was becoming increasingly alarmed. “Blast containment vessel?”
“So they can safely detonate the bomb.”
“In my living room?”
“Don’t worry. They’ll do it inside the vessel. It’s perfectly safe.”
“They don’t need to do it in my house,” Dooner protested. “There’s a park up the street. They can take it and detonate it up there.”
“They have to keep movement to a minimum,” said battalion chief as the two Bomb Squad men pushed the loaded dolly through Dooner’s front door and into his house.
It was getting dark. At this moment a black Suburban pulled up and stopped next to one of the squad cars. By now, there was quite a collection of first-response and other vehicles in front of Dooner’s house. Two nondescript men got out of the black Suburban. They were wearing dark suits and sunglasses. The men approached Dooner brandishing badges and notepads.
“You’re Steve Dooner?”
They held out their badges for Dooner to inspect. “Federal Bureau of Investigation,” one said crisply, and gave their names. “We have a few questions about Arash Ghorbani.”
Dooner sighed. “Okay.”
They began interrogating Dooner about his relationship with the Persian, how they knew each other, and whether Ghorbani had any terrorist connections.
Just then the Bomb Squad men came out of the house. “We took an X-ray,” one of them said to the battalion chief, “and we still can’t tell what’s in the envelope. No wires or anything. It doesn’t look to be explosive.”
“Okay,” said the battalion chief, taking a breath, then exhaling. “Let’s cut it open.” He looked over at the hazmat team. “You guys do it.”
The hazmat team zipped up their suits and trooped back inside, one of them carrying scissors. A long minute passed before one of them reappeared.
The yard fell silent. All heads turned to hear what he would say.
“All clear,” he announced.
At these words, Dooner, his children, and the twenty first responders standing on Dooner’s front lawn leaped into action, racing to the front door of Dooner’s house. They crowded in, filling up the foyer with uniforms and suits and armor, then swarmed into the living room.
The surgically opened envelope lay on the floor, its contents beside it. Ventura County’s finest crowded around to see what those contents were:
Greeting cards bearing pictures of Kham. Some of my nicest photographs.
After staring at the cards for a moment, one of the FBI agents asked Dooner, “Can we keep these for training purposes?”
Training purposes? Dooner shrugged. “Sure.”
There wasn’t much else to say. The firefighters, deputies, bomb squad, and FBI agents packed up their gear. One by one, the vehicles pulled out. The last to leave Dooner’s home was the battalion chief.
“Can I ask you a question?” said Dooner.
“About how much did this little exercise today cost the taxpayers?”
“About a hundred thousand,” said the chief as he walked out the door.
Wearily, Dooner shut the front door, then went upstairs to his office and sat down in front of his computer. An email glowed in his In box. It was from me. It said, “Can you tell me why the Pasadena Police was here in my office just now asking me if I sent anthrax?”
Shoutout to Steve Dooner for sharing his side of this story with me. Thank you, Steve!