At first, authorities had no idea how or where Stevens had been contaminated. On October 8, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told reporters that they did not yet have enough information to say “whether or not this could be related to terrorism” or what he called “an occurrence.” The next day, the FBI took over the investigation and by October 11, after a second newspaper mailroom employee was found to have been exposed to anthrax, officials focused on the newspaper’s mailroom, and by extension, the mail.
The mail link drew national attention after an assistant to Tom Brokaw of NBC News tested positive for anthrax infection. She remembered that a threatening letter she opened two weeks earlier contained “a sandlike substance.”(1) Many began to approach their mail with extra caution. Herbert Bush of Flushing, New York began handling his mail with gloves, “I keep it at a distance and wear gloves definitely. I told my wife and daughter not to be too anxious to open anything.”(2)
Speculations flew over motives for the mailings; many feared they were a continuation of the 9/11 attacks. The fears were widespread. In Berlin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder’s office was sealed off after white powder leaked from a letter in the mailroom. Similar discoveries led to led 55 people being taken to hospitals in Paris, the evacuation of Canterbury Cathedral in London, the evacuation of Canada’s main Parliament building, and the closing of the international airport terminal in Vienna in the weeks following Stevens’ death.
Two letters, addressed to Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, carrying the fictional return address of “4th Grade / Greendale School / Franklin Park NJ 08852, entered the mail stream in Princeton, New Jersey. They passed through the Hamilton Township facility in New Jersey, and later the Brentwood facility in Washington, DC. Senator Daschle’s letter had traveled to the Capitol from Brentwood while Senator Leahy’s letter was sidetracked to the State Department after a computer misread the letter’s ZIP code from 20510 for 20520.