Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, February 1, 1999

Wright County on edge over bomb threats

By John Holler

Vulnerability is a quality that nobody likes.

Whether it's a person afraid to walk the streets at night or a worried parent concerned when a child is late coming home, the fear that tragedy can strike is something that can always be a cause for fear and concern.

But, when that vulnerability is shared by more than 100 people at the same time, it goes beyond fear and becomes something that can be terrifying.

That was a feeling shared by many employees of Wright County on Jan. 20-21 as a pair of threats forced two evacuations of the county courthouse and had many fearing that a bomb had been planted in the courthouse; showing many Wright County residents that working for the government can make you a target.

"Government employees in general are in a glass bowl," said Sgt. Rick Doerr, who heads up the detectives unit of the Wright County Sheriff's Department. "The situations we deal with every day - domestic issues, financial issues, divorces - you end up with disgruntled people that are disgusted with the system and take it out on the people who they get bad news from."

Doerr headed up the investigation for Wright County in a series of threats that is believed to have affected five different counties - targeting their social/human services departments. While Anoka, Stearns and Sherburne counties had received previous similar threats, the Jan. 20-21 threats were directed at Wright and Sherburne counties - beginning with an ominous phone call received on the fourth floor of the Wright County Human Services reception desk at 2 p.m. Jan. 20.

"No mention was made specifically of a bomb, but the threat seemed to fit in with that," Doerr said. "There was a statement made in which a gentleman said, 'We are tired of women beating up on men. I have just talked with Anoka County and this is your warning. We have planted a device in the county.' That was how the statement was made."

Because the threat didn't specify the courthouse as the target, several buildings - ranging from the courthouse to the soon-to-be opened Human Services Building to the Public Works Building to outlying highway department shops to salt storage facilities - were evacuated and searched. Nothing was found, but the dilemma was only beginning.

At approximately 11:45 a.m. Jan. 21, the human services department's third floor reception area received a package that immediately caused alarm and seemed to tie in to the threat made the previous day.

"The package was very suspicious," Doerr said. "It contained a device that had tape and batteries and wires coming out of it. We looked at it and called the bomb squad from (the) Bloomington (Police Department)."

At the same time, a similar device was received at the Sherburne County Human Services Department - sending several law enforcement agencies into action. While it was quickly determined that the bomb was, in fact, a harmless replica, thanks to X-rays taken by the Bloomington bomb squad, the process of tracking the bomb down came quickly and led to an arrest within 12 hours.

In the afternoon of Jan. 21, a private attorney from Elk River received a call that expressed knowledge of the packages being sent and, after he hit "Star 69" - which allows a call to be traced to its site of origin - the number was found to have come from a pay phone at a business in Elk River. When law enforcement officials followed up on the call, the name of a local man was given to them - that of Richard Van Patten of Elk River.

Shortly before 10 p.m. that night, Van Patten was pulled over by Sherburne County authorities in his vehicle. A search warrant was obtained and Van Patten's car was searched, providing what deputies believed was corroborating evidence to the packages - which were traced to being picked up by a delivery service from a hotel in St. Cloud that morning.

When questioned, Van Patten denied a link between the articles found in his vehicle and the devices sent to the two counties.

"He did not confess," Doerr said. "When he was initially questioned, he asked for an attorney. He has been involved in interviews since then, but has not admitted to any involvement."

The discovery of such a threat came as a surprise to many involved. Doerr said that, in more than 25 years in law enforcement, this was the first time he had known of such a threat made in Wright County and it is believed to be the first in the county's history.

But that didn't seem to shake the nervousness that spread through the courthouse over those two days.

"We receive packages here all the time," Commissioner Ken Jude said. "When something like this happens, it's natural for people to be scared. When threats like this are made, lives can be on the line and you have to take it seriously. People were afraid, but they reacted well and we did the right thing to evacuate the buildings."

Van Patten was taken to St. Peter Jan. 25 for a psychiatric evaluation at a mental health facility and no timetable was set for when he could, or will, return to Sherburne or Wright County for trial on the charges of terroristic threats that were brought against him. Due to sentencing guideline policies, it is unlikely he would be put in state prison even if convicted, instead he would be subject to county jail time because of a lack of prior convictions on similar charges. He maintains his innocence.

As for Wright County officials, the scare has served as a wake-up call to improve procedural measures in several county departments, because, as the feeling was expressed in the days following the incidents, the next time they may not be so lucky.

"I think with any type of crisis situation, there is room for improvement in procedures," Chief Deputy Don Lindell said. "I think this will give us an opportunity to critique how things went and, in the event it ever happens again, we can have a heightened awareness and avoid a potential tragedy in the future."

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