E-Mail Threat Or Joke

Julia C. Mead | August 27, 1998

A computer message suggesting the sender might pour gasoline and light it at a medical and science symposium in Manhattan next month is under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The symposium is being planned by Dr. Helen Caldicott of East Hampton, a well-known anti-nuclear activist.

Though the subject of the message was Dr. Caldicott and the symposium, the F.B.I. reportedly advised her to ask the East Hampton Village Police Department to keep an eye on the Newtown Lane office of Standing for Truth About Radiation, of which Dr. Caldicott is vice president.

The message, whether a threat or a weird joke, was forwarded to the STAR Foundation by supporters who subscribe to an Internet distribution list called RADSAFE. It keeps customers informed on radiation and nuclear power issues.

Pound Of Plutonium

According to a spokeswoman for STAR, the message was posted to the list and therefore distributed as an E-mail message to the hundreds or thousands of RADSAFE subscribers.

The message mentions "one pound of plutonium," which was taken as a reference to Dr. Caldicott, because she often says that dispersing that amount of plutonium, the most lethal radioactive material, into the atmosphere, would be enough to give everyone in the world lung cancer.

It goes on to say "how many people would be killed by a gallon of gasoline . . . depends on whether we can surround the whole upcoming pseudo-science conference site with only one gallon before we light the match. . . ." The message concludes, "Sorry, seems my evil twin is ascendant today."

Message Signed

Although there was no way to assess its validity, the name on the bottom of the message was of an Ohio State University employee, J. Eric Denison.

Mr. Denison recently was fired from a job as a program assistant in the university's Neuro-Biotechnology Center. Tina Landes, a purchasing and personnel agent at the center, said yesterday that Mr. Denison had been accused of searching computer files he should not have had access to.

A spokesman for the New York office of the F.B.I., James Margolin, would confirm only that Dr. Caldicott's complaint was under investigation.

Reached at his house in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Denison said he could not verify whether the message was from him, since several months' worth of E-mail messages had been left in the computer at his former job. It did not sound familiar, though, he said.

Brief Conversation

"I did have a brief conversation with someone on the list server about their opinion of Dr. Caldicott," he added, but he said he was not "in a position to judge her credentials one way or another." He added that the F.B.I. had not contacted him. "The F.B.I. takes all threats seriously," Mr. Margolin said, adding that threats communicated over the Internet, if this turns out to be verified as one, are Federal crimes. Mr. Margolin cautioned, though, that the message could be deemed "not explicitly threatening" or a case of "smurfing," when the origin of a message is disguised - meaning it may not have been Mr. Denison who sent it.

Dr. Caldicott is on a visit to her native Australia, and could not be reached for comment. She is expected to return in time for the symposium, on Sept. 26 and 27, which she has spent the last year organizing.

To be held at the New York Academy of Medicine in Manhattan, the symposium is meant to bring medical and scientific experts to debate, among other things, the effects of exposure to low-level radiation.

STAR Response

A founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Dr. Caldicott's work has been harshly criticized over the years by some scientists. She has said that more radical supporters of nuclear power have attempted to discredit her and still others have, at times, threatened her.

"This is typical of the viciousness of the attacks against her. She's used to dealing with this sort of thing," said Carrie Clark, a STAR Foundation spokeswoman, of the computer message.

Ms. Clark added that STAR did not perceive "a real serious threat," especially to its East Hampton office or staff, "but it is something to be wary of . . . to make us think about the need for some security."

STAR has asked the F.B.I. for advice on whether to ask police or private security to patrol the symposium site, Ms. Clark added.