Suspicious package delivered to Sea Pines home contained foreign spice

bheffernan@islandpacket.comApril 9, 2013 

The powdery substance in a mail parcel -- which brought a bomb squad, a hazardous-materials team and FBI counter-terrorism officers to a Hilton Head Island home -- turned out to be nothing more than an exotic spice.

When Lenore Brown noticed the package with foreign postage labels had arrived Monday outside her home in Sea Pines, she was hoping it was the balalaika -- a triangle-shaped Russian guitar -- she ordered on eBay as a gift for someone.

Instead, Brown found about 30 pounds of an unknown, white powder inside, divided into several bags.

"I knew it wasn't something like anthrax," Brown said. "It weighed too much."

But she called security to be on the safe side, and law enforcement didn't take any chances.

Beaufort County Sheriff's deputies were called to her home at about 4:30 p.m., followed by the Sheriff's Office Bomb Squad, which secured the package and checked it for explosives. The Hilton Head/Bluffton hazardous materials team also came to the scene.

Both Brown and a Sea Pines security officer were decontaminated and transported to a hospital for evaluation.

Officials contacted the postal carrier, the local U.S. postal inspector and the Bow Circle post office that had processed and delivered the package. Although the post office had closed for the day, deputies quarantined the building, and employees still on the job remained inside until the package contents were confirmed to be non-hazardous.

A local FBI agent with the Joint Terrorism Task Force also assessed public threats, and members of the U.S. National Guard 43rd Civil Support Team were requested out of Fort Jackson to perform an on-site analysis of the powder, according to a Sheriff's Office news release.

At about 2 a.m., the substance was determined to be a cooking spice from Ethiopia. Brown didn't order it, but the package is not believed to have been sent with malicious intent.

Brown said the spice is "bulla," which the website ethiopianspices.com says is a fine powder made from dried banana leaves.

Sheriff P.J. Tanner said his department reacted appropriately.

"Based on what we were dealing with, which was absolutely unknown at the time ... everything was done by the book," he said. "Some may say that there was an over-response, and we understand that, but we can't have an under-response either. That's the worst case scenario."

A department spokeswoman said Brown would not be fined or be asked to pay for the cost of law-enforcement response. Brown said she received another package today.

It was the balalaika.

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