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Posted at 6:23 PM ET, 10/ 5/2010

FBI, DHS, New Orleans police ignore citizen bomb warning

By Jeff Stein

Despite global terrorism jitters and the ubiquitous homeland security plea to “Say something if you see something,” New Orleans police, the FBI and DHS all ignored the repeated warnings of a concerned citizen Tuesday about a large, unattended suitcase in the city’s famed French Quarter.

Joseph T. Wilkins, a retired municipal judge, said he noticed the suitcase around 9:30 Tuesday morning while at home in Brigantine, N.J. watching a live video feed of historic Jackson Square, a favorite spot of his during frequent vacations to New Orleans.

After about half an hour of observing the bag on his home computer, he recounted, he said to himself: “I can’t look at this thing any longer. If it blows up, I’ll feel I caused it.”

So at 10:22 a.m., according to cellphone records that he described to SpyTalk, Wilkins made a long distance call to the New Orleans police, where a woman shunted him to “the complaints department.”

“Nobody answered after 15-20 rings,” he said, so he hung up.

By then, about 45 minutes had passed since he first saw the bag, which was still sitting unattended in the historic square, a trendy arts haven bordered by early-18th-century buildings, including St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest in America.

At 10:28, Wilkins, who still practices law part-time, called the Department of Homeland Security’s headquarters in Washington, using the main number listed on its Web site (202-282-8000).

After describing the unattended suitcase, he was "transferred to another number that never picked up," he said.

"I was puzzled," he added, "because it was the Homeland Security Department and this was 10:20 in the morning, you know?"

Given all the terrorist warnings, “I couldn’t imagine that I couldn’t get through to a Homeland Security official,” he said. “Suppose the bad guys aren’t going to do something in Europe, but here?”

Wilkins said he had also left a message at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, using an 800 number advertised on its Web site.

At 10:32, he placed his fourth call of the morning, this time to the FBI’s New Orleans office.

“I explained briefly what I was looking at and was transferred to another number,” he said. “Nobody picked up.”

“I think I left a message,” Wilkins added, but said he was not sure, because “I often get tired of all those telephone menus and hang up." In any event, he said, he had identified himself to the receptionist and given the reason for his call.

"Nobody called back."

After an hour, Wilkins fretted as the unattended suitcase still sat in Jackson Square. None of the tourists strolling by were paying it any attention.

Nor did the police.

The live Web cam showed a policeman walking by the bag at about 11 a.m. without taking any special notice. A few minutes later, a police squad car also drove by, within feet of the bag, without stopping. Then another one did.

Wilkins called the Times-Picayune again. This time he reached the news department, where he left anther voice-mail message, then punched “0” to get back to the main number, from which he finally reached a newsroom employee who told him “she could reach the [police] district commander.”

Nothing happened. More time passed. Finally, the Web cam showed a disheveled-looking man walking up to the bag and pulling it away. Two hours had gone by.

If the New Orleans police, the FBI or a DHS agency ever showed interest in the bag, it was never caught on the Web cam.

Meanwhile, a New Orleans Police employee confirmed Wilkins's call.

Reached by phone, Cheryl Finlay, an administrator in the police superintendent’s office, remembered the call and said she had indeed referred him to another number -- for the Eighth District commander -- the one that never answered, according to Wilkins.

“That would be the best I could do,” Finlay said. “I have no way to dispatch anyone to that location. I’m not a dispatcher.”

A NOPD public relations official soon came on the line and, after several questions, generally confirmed that Finlay had used standard operating procedure.

The retired judge, meanwhile, shudders at the thought of the casualties that could have ensued if the suitcase had really held a bomb. Only an alert citizen's call in Times Square on May 1, after all, averted such a tragedy.

Neither the FBI nor DHS immediately responded to a request for comment.

But at 2:45 Tuesday afternoon, Wilkins called to say that an official in the FBI's New Orleans office had just reached out to him, apologizing that he'd had "about 40 other calls" to attend to first -- none of them related to the suitcase.

"Pretty slow response time," Wilkins cracked.

By Jeff Stein  | October 5, 2010; 6:23 PM ET
Categories:  Homeland Security, Intelligence, Justice/FBI  | Tags:  Joseph T. Wilkins  
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I wonder how they would have felt if it had been a bomb and it had gone off? Is this what we can expect from our so-called protectors? Pretty sad, if you ask me.

Posted by: vicknair | October 5, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Last year I was in BWI airport waiting to board the single transatlantic flight they have now--British Airways. A young, long haired and, yes, "foreign looking" guy got up from his seat in the waiting area and left a large duffel bag behind. After several minutes, we all began looking at the bag apprehensively. After several more minutes, someone went and got airport personnel who turned out to be two young guys in yellow vests who walked around the bag for several minutes and then went away. A few minutes after that, the long haired young man returned, picked up his bag and left. In addition to the lack of response when travelers did just as they have been told to do, I was really baffled by the fact that his guy had gotten through security in the international terminal, dropped his bag and, I presume, went out again, only to come back through and get the bag. It didn't give me a lot of confidence in the airport's security measures.

Posted by: purdyjack | October 5, 2010 7:58 PM | Report abuse

And you know what was next to that oh-so-ominous abandoned suitcase? Abandoned cars! Hundreds upon hundreds of abandoned cars! (Or "parked" cars, if you insist -- but how can you tell the difference?)

Treating abandoned luggage as some kind of emergency might be appropriate in, say, the subway, or in a stadium. Maybe. But out in the street, where there are zillions of trash cans, mailboxes, recycle bins, cars, etc, that could be used to conceal a bomb, going all hypervigilant about a random suitcase is just silly.

Posted by: vfr2dca | October 5, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

The reporting of the SUV in times square was after the danger had past, as was the reporting in this. There is simply no practical way to prevent such an attack. Which leads to the conclusion that not many people are willing to conduct such an attack. So let's stop running scared and start examining how we can live in peace with the rest of the world.

Posted by: vmax02rider | October 5, 2010 9:32 PM | Report abuse


Why would yu be afraid of a duffel bag that according to your story had ALREADY passed through the security checkpoint?

You could kill more people at your local high school football game than you could on a weekday morning in October in the French Quarter. This would have to have been left by Al Queda's stupid younger brother.

The above story is why we need to give old people something to do beside sit in front of their computers and perform video surveillance. The country is going nuts!

Posted by: 54465446 | October 5, 2010 11:30 PM | Report abuse

Yes, and in the end all that arm flapping paranoia resulted in wasted time. Obviously either some badly hung over drunken fool came back for the bag he'd forgotten that was thankfully not blown up, or some homeless guy's got a new set of clothes. IN any case, since we haven't read about any poorly dressed bomb victims, I'd say it's a safe bet that the lack of interest saved far more time and money that otherwise would have been wasted.

Perhaps he ought to spend less time watching the fearmongers at Fox, and a bit more say, outside in a park in New Jersey.

Posted by: Nymous | October 6, 2010 5:28 AM | Report abuse

What exactly did the man expect DHS headquarters to do about a suspicious bag in New Orleans? Send ICE agents, CBP officers, or TSA screeners to check it out? FBI isn't set up to respond immediately to every suspicious bag either. This one is on the local PD, but also on the state of Louisiana, which unlike other some states, appears to lack a clear mechanism for its citizens to report suspicious incidents.

Posted by: jordan875 | October 6, 2010 6:14 AM | Report abuse

The guy in Times Square called 911 (I assume). I thought that this was the thing to do. How do you call 911 long distance? If I call 911 from where I am, can I be transferred to the dispatcher in some other place where I have spotted a theat to life?

Please tell us. Everyone should know this.

Posted by: SoloOwl | October 6, 2010 6:46 AM | Report abuse

Homer Simpson in one episode said:

"What's the number for 911?"

This story sounds like it came from the writers of The Simpsons.

Posted by: tomswift96 | October 6, 2010 7:13 AM | Report abuse

I would think that a judge would be smart enough not to call all of these administrative offices. If you want the police to respond you call 911.

Posted by: MKadyman | October 6, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

For the last two posters, no you can't call 911 in NJ for problems in New Orleans. They don't have a direct line to that department. Brush up on your reading skills.

Posted by: 54465446 | October 6, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Wanna see where the US police state is going: look at the last years of the Soviet Union.

Posted by: citizen625 | October 6, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

I work in a building that goes into lockdown every time a tourist walks away from his lunch. I don't feel safer for the security theater.

Posted by: bperk420 | October 6, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Truly boggles the mind: our spineless "leaders" have given the impression that "terrorists" are everywhere...and so many Americans have mindlessly bought into that. In fact, the radicals/fanatics abroad threatening acts of terror number in the low thousands (at best government guesstimate).

Americans should "get a life." As vfr2dca noted, there are thousands of places a terrorist could place a bomb. Why would any terrorist put a bag out in the open on a bench and leave it there for hours? It only takes a few seconds to set one shown in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.

And a company going into "lock down" over someone's left lunch, as bperk420 mentioned? It would have been "set off" before anyone could do anything if it were actually a bomb. Just completely nutty stuff...but it has created a climate of fear in America that serves a number of purposes for our so-called "leaders."

Trying to chase down every place where a bomb might be would take hundreds of thousands more policemen...great if we want to have a police state. We have infinitely more chances of getting shot or run down by a car than killed by a terrorist act...infinitely.

The "terrorists" have already "won"...they have panicked supposedly the most powerful country in the world. A few thousand men vs. 300 million...and the thousands have won. Astounding....

Posted by: Rigged | October 6, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

So… there's no bomb. Never was a bomb and… sorry, what's the news story?

Ah, someone THOUGHT they saw a bomb on a web camera - and the police didn't respond? I think they should find this Joseph T. Wilkins guy and arrest him for attempting to incite a panic. Besides, it was prolly just a body in the suitcase.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | October 6, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

1. Any 911 call taker in any city can contact the authorities in another jurisdiction, anywhere in the US.

2. If you saw a person walking the streets with a bag, drop it and run, don't you think you would be suspicious?

3. Does anyone who posted here realize anything about terrorism? I graduated with a Major in Emergency Management, and a minor in Homeland Security, and deal with things like this on a daily basis, so I am fully qualified to speak. Yes, most of these things are harmless. But you never know when someone with nefarious intent could be testing the system, watching police procedures, or timing response. Remember the guy in Times Square? He did his homework before pulling off his stunt (that thankfully didn't happen the way he claimed). It is never beneficial for anyone to see where your resources are lacking, and where your response lags. This could have been handled in a quick and easy fashion, without much fanfare.

4. Regarding the guy at the airport: You don't leave bags around. That's the law, and the rules. You never, ever know if, between the time he was searched and the time he left it, he took various components from his bag and constructed a bomb or other weapon. Not hard to do, and definitely in the realm of reality.

Come on, guys, let's use our brains here for a sec. We are NOT safe, there ARE terrorists waiting to strike, and its up to US to notice things out of place. Let the police decide whats dangerous or not. You just report it.

Posted by: InformedOne | October 6, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

informedone wrote:

"Any 911 call taker in any city can contact the authorities in another jurisdiction, anywhere in the US."

This is absoltuely NOT true, as you would know if you had done any of your preparation in the real world instead of college.

Also if you were who you say you were you would know that this would NOT have been handled quickly and easily. To do it in a professional way would have required the evacuation of the closest building, cordoning off the area for several blocks, bringing out the EOD, who would then have to send out a robot to x-ray the bag, and a man to suit up to approach it Elapsed time at least 60 mimutes, up to two hours or more if they don't have those resouces easily available.

" Regarding the guy at the airport: You don't leave bags around. That's the law, and the rules. You never, ever know if, between the time he was searched and the time he left it, he took various components from his bag and constructed a bomb or other weapon. Not hard to do, and definitely in the realm of reality."

Right, he went to all the trouble to assemble bomb components, risk arrest in getting them past security, only to set them off in the WAITING area rather than on board a plane!

Kid, you sound like a paper pusher in some town's emergency service preparedness office (a young Richard Clarke perhaps?). Get a job as a cop so you actually learn something about the business!

Posted by: 54465446 | October 6, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

54465446: You, young lad, have a lot to learn.

Where I am (a federal response agency) we generally clear "suspicious packages" - usually 2 or 3 a day - in a matter of a half hour or less (and, yes, there are those that take longer). Everything from bags on bikes to suitcases and duffel bags. Yes, the less experienced departments may need some additional time to complete their investigation. The agency that I am proudly part of can get that baby x-rayed, developed, and cleared in as little as 10 - 15 minutes.

Being an emergency dispatcher\call taker in my past life, I have the ability to forward a call to any police agency in the US. I have done it, and yes, it can be done.

As far as the airport, if I was a terrorist, how do you know that there weren't simultaneous bombs ready to go off in multiple places in the terminal? You don't know their plans... Remember, the reason we call them "terrorists" is to "terrorize" people, and they will do anything to pull that off.

Gotta think outside the box, son. The fact that we have done nothing since 9/11 is called "complacency" and I see you have plenty of it. And an extreme case of not thinking outside the box. Let's see you write and exercise some of the scenarios that I have written, practiced, and responded to in real life. How many miles away would we find you?

And as for your disrespectful and cndensending tone, I'll let my 15 years of emergency planning and response experience bypass your little cop mentality.

Posted by: InformedOne | October 6, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Whew. Incredible comments. No wonder there's a terrorist threat everywhere. Apathy and denial abound. "NOPD" just about sums it up. And, for this the US spends $75b/year?

Terrorist want to terrorise. Any bag anywhere will do that especially if the terrorist doesn't want to get caught. The retired judge did right, bully for him. The responses he got were what one would sadly expect.

People should learn by other's experience and not the hard way. You might well ask "So what?" about the small bombs like the ones in the backyard of house under construction or a rubbish container at the entrance to a cemetery. These were hidden and not detectable.

But, what do you say about the devastating car bombs at the Baltic Exchange,South Quay or, more recently yet long ago now in 2001, a car bomb in front of the BBC? Would you report a suspicious vehicle?

Suppose those backpacks were left on the trains and buses to go off on 7/7/2005 (50 killed; 700 injured) and even on 21/7/2005 (these were duds) instead of being set off by suicide or would-be suicide bombers? How about the bombs set off by remote mobile phones on the Madrid commuter train(s)?

Anything left unattended is suspicious and should be reported to save lives just in case. The local police, HMS, FBI et al should start testing their own systems to ensure they are working, or terrorists will do it for them.

All those in these and other organisations have the responsibility to respond and/or know where a report for a possible bomb should go. The way it happened makes it sound like he was complaining about something he bought and was given a run around.

This should be a wake up call for the whole US to heed. $75b/year for a sleeping population gives the word "sleeper" a whole new meaning. What happens when WMD are suitcase size?

Posted by: garydchance | October 6, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

"Regarding the guy at the airport: You don't leave bags around. That's the law, and the rules."

Posted by: InformedOne
What in God's name are you talking about? Are you suggesting it is illegal to walk away from your luggage in a U.S. airport?

Are you sure you graduated with a minor in HS?

Posted by: JRM2 | October 6, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

InformedOne : My dentist uses digital X-rays, he can see them instantly and doesn't have to wait 10-15 minutes.

Posted by: JRM2 | October 6, 2010 7:21 PM | Report abuse

informedone wrote:

"Where I am (a federal response agency) we generally clear "suspicious packages" - usually 2 or 3 a day - in a matter of a half hour or less (and, yes, there are those that take longer). Everything from bags on bikes to suitcases and duffel bags. Yes, the less experienced departments may need some additional time to complete their investigation. The agency that I am proudly part of can get that baby x-rayed, developed, and cleared in as little as 10 - 15 minutes."

Sorry once again you show that this is all just academic type theory on your part. All you could do in 15 minutes is find the owner at best. You clearly show that you have no knowledge of EOD procedure, post Oklahoma City. Yes it used to be like that when the tech would walk up to a package and use his knife on it, but the time frame you talk about says AMATEUR. In fact, you don't even use nomenclature that anyone in the field would use.

I have met your kind many times. Political appointees and relatives of somebody important enough to get them a position in city or state govenments. You run exercises and create reports. You told me so yourself in your first post when you wrote "I graduated with a Major in Emergency Management, and a minor in Homeland Security, . . ." People who have actually accomplished things in their field don't start off by citing their college credentials.

I did love your line: "Let's see you write and exercise some of the scenarios that I have written, practiced, and responded to in real life." I am sure that writing and exercising is most of what you do; although I concede that you may occasionally respond to real events, where you opinions are ignored by the professionals in the field.

One last thing, no I don't have to list my credentials academic and professional because anyone whose opinion would matter instantly recognizes both of us.

Posted by: 54465446 | October 6, 2010 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Phil Ochs singing "Outside a Small Circle of Friends"
Read the comments there.

Then stunningly the next choice is his "What Are We Fighting For?" with a photo of a sign being held up that says "Stop Evicting Katrina Survivors." The photo montage for this song is devastating about today's events set against his lyrics:

Here's a judge in NJ who tries to do the right thing in New Orleans from a web cam he sees and not only fails, but those who respond to the Jeff Stein account abuse him for reporting it. Where are we now? What have we become?

Posted by: garydchance | October 10, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

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