Threat Letters & Digital Billboards

September 24, 2008

Today we’re talking about threat letters and billboards, digital billboards, to help catch dangerous fugitives.

Audio Transcript

Mr. Schiff: Hello I’m Neal Schiff and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases and operations. Today we’re talking about threat letters and billboards, digital billboards, to help catch dangerous fugitives. We talked with the Chief of the FBI’s National Press Office, Special Agent Rich Kolko, about threatening letters sent recently to financial institutions…

Mr. Kolko: ”Well starting on Monday a series of letters were received at Chase banks in just a couple of states. And what’s happened over the last three days they’ve gotten over 50 of these letters, mostly at Chase Bank and the Office of Thrift Supervision. It’s in over 11 states right now.”

Mr. Schiff: Any specific areas of the country or just spread across the lower 48 states?

Mr. Kolko: It really is coast to coast. We’ve had them from California to New York down to Georgia, Texas; it covers a wide area of the country. The issue here is the letters have an implied threat which can be very scary to the person that is opening it. Included in that is a powdered substance.”

Mr. Schiff: This can create another situation. Agents and police officers not working elsewhere. Kolko says this is a big concern…

Mr. Kolko: “So what we have occurring now, there has to be a law enforcement response. The FBI shows up; the U.S. Postal Inspectors show up; local police; fire; Hazmat crews. And they have to secure this powder; they are doing some field tests on it. The field tests so far have fortunately been negative so nobody has been hurt. After that they have to secure the powder. It gets sent off to a regionally accredited lab for further testing; we’ll get results of that pretty soon. One of the problems here, though, and people try to say, ‘You know, they sent a letter; not that big of a deal.’ But that big law enforcement I talked about, they all have to show up at this bank. And that takes them off the street so they are not doing their regular job. This isn’t just an inconvenience to the bank and the customers, it really affects the whole city that they’re in.”

Mr. Schiff: What does the letter say?

Mr. Kolko: “Well, the later verbatim says ‘Steal tens of thousands of people’s money and not expect reprercussions. It’s payback time. What you just breathed in will kill you within 10 days. Thank (and we redacted the name here) and the FDIC for your demise.’ And these letters all are postmarked from Amarillo, Texas. So, as FBI agents, that’s certainly a clue for somewhere to start. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the person came from Amarillo. But it certainly is part of the investigation.”

Mr. Schiff: What is the FBI’s role in the investigation? What are we doing? How are we going about looking at this and who is the FBI working with?

Mr. Kolko: “Well, since 9/11 and since the days of the anthrax attacks in the United States the FBI has really concentrated on these WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) issues. We have a Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate; they have an Operations Unit that operates right here at Headquarters. In each of our 56 field offices we also have a WMD coordinator. So they work closely together each time there is one of these incidents. Interesting enough, over the past two-years, the FBI has responded to over 900 of these threat letters. And when I say they’ve responded to the threat letters, that means there has to be a threat letter with the powder. We’ve all heard of those innocent ones where someone spills some sugar on the table and someone calls the police. I’m not even counting those. But that means this has been a large problem across the country for the last few years.”

Mr. Schiff: What can people do to help in trying to solve this dilemma?

Mr. Kolko: “That’s a good point. And that’s the reason that on we posted a sample of the letter and the envelope. We have a bunch of good leads that we’re following right now but we want to encourage additional leads. So we want people to take a look at that letter. If you recognize the writing style or if something makes you think it could be tied to someone you are familiar with, we want you to pick up the phone, call the FBI; go to where you can submit an anonymous tip; call the postal inspectors; local police; whatever it takes. Try and get that information to us. And very importantly, just on Wednesday the postal inspectors offered a $100,000 reward.”

Mr. Schiff: Everybody watches TV and sees a lot of the law enforcement programs and cases get solved in a short period of time. Forensics take awhile; they don’t take an hour? Is that right?

Mr. Kolko: “Yeah, there’s a CSI aspect in courtrooms these days. People got used to a crime being solved in 45 minutes. So, between the field investigation that will occur at each of the banks, the laboratory testing at the regional labs, then the FBI lab farther down the road, the leads, the tracking down the envelopes, tracking down the letters, this could turn into a fairly significant and, we hope, not lengthy investigation. It’s important that this person be identified, arrested and prosecuted quickly so we can put a stop to this.”

Mr. Schiff: And the FBI’s Laboratory Division plays a role?

Mr. Kolko: “Absolutely. The FBI’s Laboratory Division helps with the field testing. They help with the coordination with conference calls that happens each time one of these occur. And then they’ll be the final stop, the last step of the testing in this process.”

Mr. Schiff: If anyone listening has any information about any of this, what should they do?

Mr. Kolko: “Simple. Call 1-800-Call-FBI; tell the person what you know. If you are in front of your computer, just go to and you can submit a tip and you can do it anonymously. You can tell us your name. It’s your choice. But everyone should have an interest in this to see that this comes to a stop and we hope that the person that has the information will take the time to give us the call.”

Mr. Schiff: Publicity about fugitives is important. When law enforcement gets the word out, you have the chance to help find the bad guys and get them off the streets. Recently the FBI and the Clear Channel company worked together in having fugitive’s pictures and descriptive data placed on digital billboards and FBI Assistant Director of Public Affairs, John Miller, joins us…

Mr. Miller: “‘These,’ as the Oldsmobile commercial used to say, ‘are not your father’s billboards.’ I mean when I was growing up billboards meant it was something men came and painted and it stayed there for long time and after a couple of years someone painted over it. With electronic billboards, they have now brought the kind of immediacy that you would get from television or radio or the Internet. It’s outdoor advertising. Which means if a child goes missing, the Amber Alerts that we got used to seeing on the highway signs which basically were constructed to tell us about traffic delays, now can be on the big advertising billboards not just along the highways but the major roads and streets of a city. So, if a child is missing, we can get that up on a network of billboards and target it not just where the child disappeared from, but if we have information, let’s say it’s a parental kidnapping, and the mother or the father has taken him from city A to city B, we can put those pictures and a hotline number up in City A. We can also do in City B even though it’s on the other side of the country.”

Mr. Schiff: In Philadelphia, FBI Special Agent Bill Shute helped get some digital billboards up to get the word to motorists and pedestrians…

Mr. Shute: “Well, we’re always trying to look for new ways to get the FBI’s name out there; always looking for new ways to get publicity for the cases that we’re working. And under the initiative and eyes of Step Up, Speak Up, we’re trying to encourage the public to step up and speak up about what they see or what they hear. We were able to make this initiative happen and try to encourage the public, basically with these billboards in high traffic areas, to convince the public to call the FBI not with only information about wanted fugitives, but basically creating a public awareness campaign that the FBI is willing to hear your information.”

Mr. Schiff: And Shute, who worked with the FBI’s Community Outreach staff, says these brightly lit and colorful digital billboards can rotate pictures and information…

Mr. Shute: “And what it does is it routinely rotates between images approximately every four to five seconds. What you’re getting is constant images that a motorist can see, you know, probably up to a quarter-mile away they could see it as they’re driving up to it.”

Mr. Schiff: Back to FBI Assistant Director John Miller. He says the advertising industry gets this…

Mr. Miller: “From the first time we did it with an outdoor advertising company, another and another and another and said, ‘We want to join in the effort. These are the cities where are billboards are. How do we help.’"

Mr. Schiff: In Chicago, a digital billboard led to the surrender of a dangerous gang member wanted by the FBI and Chicago Police. FBI Special Agent Ross Rice in Chicago…

Mr. Rice: “We have been looking for an individual named Donnell Jehan, whose street name was Scandalous or Scan since May of 2004.”

Mr. Schiff: And it didn’t take long for the billboard to work…

Mr. Rice: “Jehan’s was the first and within a few days of his case being profiled he surrendered to the Chicago Police.”

Mr. Schiff: Please keep in mind that if you know anything about a criminal or a criminal act or illegal activity, give the FBI a call, the number is in the front of your phone book. You may also file a report online at That concludes our show. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.

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