Multiple Agencies Continue To Probe Bomb Threats; Police Balancing Public’s Desire To Know With Covert Investigation

BERLIN — With more bomb threats received by local schools across Delmarva, a multi-agency investigation by authorities continues with vigor, according to officials.

On Wednesday afternoon, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies all along the east coast participated in a teleconference call to discuss the ongoing investigation. Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis said afterwards the teleconference was deemed “law enforcement sensitive” and there was nothing new to share other than that there is now a multi-state effort underway by many law enforcement agencies to thoroughly investigate the bomb threats.

On Tuesday, the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement explaining an expanded role for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the bomb threat investigations on the Lower Shore and across Maryland and beyond.

“Like last week, I have met with and remain in constant communication with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in an effort to maintain a collaborative response to these threats,” the statement reads. “Today, I learned from the Baltimore field office of the FBI that they have now formed a Bomb Threat Task Force that will continue to work with local law enforcement in an effort to track down those responsible for these threats.”

While Lewis asserted the FBI was forming a task force specific to the bomb threat issue, FBI Baltimore Field Office spokesperson Amy Thoreson said on Tuesday no specific bomb threat task force was being formed at this time by the federal agency. It could be a slight communication breakdown or a matter of semantics, but clearly the Sheriff’s Office and the FBI were not on the same page in terms of defining the federal agency’s role in the investigation.

“We have not created a bomb threat task force,” said Thoreson on Tuesday. “We are aware of the threats and are looking into it. However, we know the more media attention the person or people doing this get, the more calls they are going to make to create more chaos. We are doing all we can to assist the local law enforcement agencies dealing with the threats, but we haven’t formed a task force.”

Lewis said later he was directed to a supervisory special agent assigned to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force in Baltimore, who confirmed the bomb threat cases were going to be assigned to their task force. He said the FBI requested a central contact person from the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office to provide them with all relevant information from the cases in Wicomico. Regardless of how the FBI’s role in the investigation is defined, the federal agency is clearly now in the middle of the probe on the shore and beyond.

“The FBI will assume the primary investigative responsibility for these cases,” the statement reads. “We in Wicomico County will continue to work with our federal partners to ensure the safety and well-being of our students and faculty members, while being mindful of our duty and responsibility to investigate these threats on a case-by-case basis.”

Throughout the last two weeks, almost every bomb threat made to a school has been met with an immediate evacuation. However, in at least one incident in Wicomico, students, faculty and staff were told to “shelter in place” while the facilities were scanned and the threats were deemed unfounded, which raised some eyebrows in the community. In his statement, Lewis defended the decision to keep students and staff in school while the threat was investigated.

“It’s so easy to second guess our collective decision regarding school evacuations when you aren’t privy to preliminary information,” the statement reads. “For investigative purpose, we cannot disclose all information learned during each of these cases. However, the information does assist us in making an informed decision as to ‘shelter in place or evacuate’ a school.”

Meanwhile, Worcester County has seen four bomb threats in the last week.

On Tuesday, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office issued its own statement after meeting with allied law enforcement agencies and the Board of Education, including Superintendent Dr. Jerry Wilson. Again, few details could be provided about the investigation, other than it was ongoing and aggressive.

“Sheriff [Reggie] Mason and Dr. Wilson have been working in concert to provide your children with a safe and secure environment,” the statement read. “Some questions you have cannot be answered as this is an ongoing investigation that spans several states. Every step is being taken to locate, identify and apprehend those responsible for these calls. The Sheriff’s Office, along with our allied partners in law enforcement, are working closely with our state and federal partners to bring this matter to a conclusion.”

The Worcester County Sheriff’s Office attempted to assure the public the safety protocols at the schools were constantly being reviewed while the bomb threat situation continued to evolve and promised proactive measures were being put in place.

“Immediately after [last] Tuesday’s call to Ocean City Elementary, Sheriff Mason met with his staff and those from surrounding agencies and our partners within the Board or Education to review our safety plans for each school,” the statement reads. “These plans are constantly being evaluated and implemented on a daily basis. Your children’s safety is our top priority. We will be conducting additional patrols of all of our schools and working with our local agencies to make sure your respective schools are protected as best we can.”

On Monday, Worcester County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Ed Schreier also said the allied law enforcement agencies are being proactive in an attempt to allay some of the fears in the community.

“We would not want to go into great detail due to the open investigation, but we are checking the schools,” he said. “Our priority is to help provide a safe environment for the community we serve and attempt to eliminate the fear some may have.”1

Meanwhile, local elected officials also weighed in this week on the evolving bomb threat situation. During a briefing with the Ocean City Mayor and Council on Tuesday, County Commissioner Joe Mitrecic outlined some of the law enforcement activities in response.

“Our sheriff’s department, our fire departments, school administrators, principals, teachers and other educational support staff are doing everything possible to ensure everyone’s children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews are safe in our schools,” he said. “Unfortunately, we live in a world today where no possible threat can be ignored and we have to treat every incident like it’s the one.”

Mitrecic said the two-week span of bomb threats locally and beyond were taking their toll on resources.

“The other part of this equation is the cost to the taxpayers,” he said. “The amount of overtime the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department has tied up in this already is just unbelievable.”

Mitrecic said the bomb threats had extended up and down the east coast, further taxing local, state and federal resources.

“We also have federal investigators involved, but you have to remember that this is something that stretches from Massachusetts to Georgia, so everybody is stretched and everybody is doing the best they can and we’re working as hard as we can to catch the person or persons responsible for this so we can go on with our lives.”

For his part, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan agreed all that could be done was being done.

“The unspeakable actions by some have caused our local Worcester County schools to be evacuated,” he said. “This is hard for any of us to imagine and I know both federal and local authorities are working diligently to resolve this issue and apprehend those responsible.”

Meehan promised Ocean City would lend any resources needed to the effort and praised those on the front lines.

“I’d like to acknowledge tonight the job well done by Worcester County, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department, the Maryland State Police, our Ocean City Fire Department and our volunteer division and our Ocean City Police Department and all those who have been involved at the county level,” he said. “They are out there to protect our most precious assets, our children and our young adults.”

Meehan said the school system and law enforcement had plans and protocols in place prior to the events of the last two weeks and they have worked effectively.

“They followed their procedures and were able to help get through this process, as difficult as it was, to protect the kids and work with the adults to make sure they felt everyone was safe,” he said. “It’s a very, very difficult and very, very emotional thing.”

Meehan said the training and drilling students and school staffers, along with the law enforcement agencies paid dividends in the face of a real crisis.

“In a very scary situation, everybody was well trained,” he said. “It lets you know all the training you receive and all of the exercises we all go through are very important when you have this unhappiness. They had all those protocols in place, and all of those students and those teachers did exactly what they were supposed to do.”

Meehan urged the community to stay united in the face of continued threats.

“I know our community is concerned,” he said. “We all need to stand together and support our schools, our law enforcement agencies, our parents and our kids so we can all move on from these difficult times.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.