FBI, DHS, New Orleans police ignore citizen bomb warning
Despite global terrorism jitters and the ubiquitous homeland security plea to “Say something if you see something,” New Orleans police, the FBI and DHS all ignored the repeated warnings of a concerned citizen Tuesday about a large, unattended suitcase in the city’s famed French Quarter.
Joseph T. Wilkins, a retired municipal judge, said he noticed the suitcase around 9:30 Tuesday morning while at home in Brigantine, N.J. watching a live video feed of historic Jackson Square, a favorite spot of his during frequent vacations to New Orleans.
After about half an hour of observing the bag on his home computer, he recounted, he said to himself: “I can’t look at this thing any longer. If it blows up, I’ll feel I caused it.”
So at 10:22 a.m., according to cellphone records that he described to SpyTalk, Wilkins made a long distance call to the New Orleans police, where a woman shunted him to “the complaints department.”
“Nobody answered after 15-20 rings,” he said, so he hung up.
By then, about 45 minutes had passed since he first saw the bag, which was still sitting unattended in the historic square, a trendy arts haven bordered by early-18th-century buildings, including St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest in America.
At 10:28, Wilkins, who still practices law part-time, called the Department of Homeland Security’s headquarters in Washington, using the main number listed on its Web site (202-282-8000).
After describing the unattended suitcase, he was "transferred to another number that never picked up," he said.
"I was puzzled," he added, "because it was the Homeland Security Department and this was 10:20 in the morning, you know?"
Given all the terrorist warnings, “I couldn’t imagine that I couldn’t get through to a Homeland Security official,” he said. “Suppose the bad guys aren’t going to do something in Europe, but here?”
Wilkins said he had also left a message at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, using an 800 number advertised on its Web site.
At 10:32, he placed his fourth call of the morning, this time to the FBI’s New Orleans office.
“I explained briefly what I was looking at and was transferred to another number,” he said. “Nobody picked up.”
“I think I left a message,” Wilkins added, but said he was not sure, because “I often get tired of all those telephone menus and hang up." In any event, he said, he had identified himself to the receptionist and given the reason for his call.
"Nobody called back."
After an hour, Wilkins fretted as the unattended suitcase still sat in Jackson Square. None of the tourists strolling by were paying it any attention.
Nor did the police.
The live Web cam showed a policeman walking by the bag at about 11 a.m. without taking any special notice. A few minutes later, a police squad car also drove by, within feet of the bag, without stopping. Then another one did.
Wilkins called the Times-Picayune again. This time he reached the news department, where he left anther voice-mail message, then punched “0” to get back to the main number, from which he finally reached a newsroom employee who told him “she could reach the [police] district commander.”
Nothing happened. More time passed. Finally, the Web cam showed a disheveled-looking man walking up to the bag and pulling it away. Two hours had gone by.
If the New Orleans police, the FBI or a DHS agency ever showed interest in the bag, it was never caught on the Web cam.
Meanwhile, a New Orleans Police employee confirmed Wilkins's call.
Reached by phone, Cheryl Finlay, an administrator in the police superintendent’s office, remembered the call and said she had indeed referred him to another number -- for the Eighth District commander -- the one that never answered, according to Wilkins.
“That would be the best I could do,” Finlay said. “I have no way to dispatch anyone to that location. I’m not a dispatcher.”
A NOPD public relations official soon came on the line and, after several questions, generally confirmed that Finlay had used standard operating procedure.
The retired judge, meanwhile, shudders at the thought of the casualties that could have ensued if the suitcase had really held a bomb. Only an alert citizen's call in Times Square on May 1, after all, averted such a tragedy.
Neither the FBI nor DHS immediately responded to a request for comment.
But at 2:45 Tuesday afternoon, Wilkins called to say that an official in the FBI's New Orleans office had just reached out to him, apologizing that he'd had "about 40 other calls" to attend to first -- none of them related to the suitcase.
"Pretty slow response time," Wilkins cracked.
| October 5, 2010; 6:23 PM ET
Categories: Homeland Security, Intelligence, Justice/FBI | Tags: Joseph T. Wilkins
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