I Help the FBI Catch the Anthrax Killer…or not

Do you remember the Anthrax Terrorist? Right after 9/11, someone mailed out packets of anthrax to a newspaper office in Florida, to some politicians in Washington and to some network news anchors. Several people died as a result of this.

Both the FBI and the Post Office were on the hunt for this guy. The Post Office was offering $1 million reward for information that led to the terrorist’s arrest. Any news show we watched during those days had a scroll running underneath it, asking for the public’s help in catching this killer.

One night around this time, I fell asleep watching the World Series and I had a dream. In the dream, it came to me that whoever was mailing out the deadly anthrax was probably doing it in his home somewhere. But because this stuff is so deadly, it wouldn’t be like he was packing envelopes over his kitchen sink or in his bathtub. Even if he was wearing protective gear, he’d contaminate his house this way. Again, in the dream, it dawned on me that he was probably using a glovebox to pack the anthrax into the letters he was mailing.

(A glovebox looks like a big home aquarium, without the water and fish. They are made of thick glass and have two holes in one side through which heavy rubber gloves are placed. People put their hands in the gloves and are thus able to handle hazardous materials without contaminating themselves or their surroundings.)

As it so happened, my neighbor owned a company that made gloveboxes – and there are only five such companies in the US. The next day I told him my theory and said if anyone out of the ordinary had ordered a glovebox from his company recently, it might be the guy who was mailing out the anthrax. He agreed. If this guy was amateur – and remember at the time everyone thought it was Al Qaeda operatives doing this – and wasn’t doing it in a laboratory somewhere (which was unlikely) he would absolutely need a glovebox to do what he was doing.

I called a friend of mine who works for the FBI in Washington and told him the story. He checked with his superiors and they suggested I call the FBI’s Boston office, which is close to where I live. With my neighbor’s OK, I did this . . . and that’s when things started to go wrong.

First of all, it took the FBI almost 2 weeks to get back to me. Again, remember at the time the news was full of how hard the FBI was working to catch this guy, which, knowing what I know now, must have been bullcrap. When an FBI agent called, I told him the story, explained what a glovebox was, and how there were only five companies in the country that made them – two of which were in the town I lived in, and one of which was owned by my neighbor. It took me a while to explain it all to him; at one point he said the FBI had already checked this out. But I told him no one had ever contacted my neighbor’s company. The agent took notes, I guess, and said he’d get back to me. He also wanted to talk to my neighbor.

My neighbor called him a few days later, and essentially regurgitated what I had told the agent earlier. The agent said he’d get back to us.

Another two weeks went by. One night my phone rang. It was the FBI. A different agent. He started the conversation with: “I understand you know who the Anthrax killer is.”

I told him, no – I just had information on how the guy might be doing it, and that all the FBI had to do was check the records of these glovebox companies and see if anyone unusual had bought one lately. (BTW, gloveboxes aren’t cheap. They cost about $30,000 each.)

The agent took my information – again — and then asked to speak with my neighbor, again. By this time we were getting PO’d that these guys were so disorganized, so not on the beam about this. To watch the news – especially that propaganda operation Fox News — you would have thought the FBI was throwing every resource they had into this. Yet to us, they were bumbling and very disconnected.

My neighbor talked to them again, reluctantly by this time, and eventually, some agents arrived at the two glovebox companies in our town and went over their recent sales records. They spent no more than an hour in both places – not exactly Sherlock Holmes-stuff – and left. By this time, my neighbor and I were sorry we even got involved. When the fact the FBI visited his company came out in the local paper, it just made the whole situation worse. It took them nearly two months to act on this, something that should have taken a day at the most.

So much for trying help out.

All this happened more than three years ago. Last time I checked, the Anthrax killer was still on the loose.


Yet Another Brush With Fame…

During the first Gulf War, I was hidden away in a cabin in a very small town called Bolton Landing which is up in the Adirondack Mountains next to Lake George. It was the middle of the winter and I was writing War Heaven, which turned out to be one of my best-selling books. I watched the entire Gulf War on CNN while I was writing the book; that’s why no one gets killed in the story. I thought it would be cool to write a war-book where no one gets killed, while I was watching a real war on TV.

The local newspaper asked if they could do a story on me. I said sure. The reporter interviewed me in a local restaurant, and because this place really was small town, everyone knew about it right away. They took my picture a dozen times, made a big deal out of it. During this time, I used to go to a local donut shop every morning to get coffee and the newspaper. There was a cute girl who used to wait on me all the time, and we used to chat briefly and I could tell she used to wonder who the hell I was.

The day the story came out in the newspaper, I went into the coffee shop as usual and bought a few copies to mail home. She saw me coming and as I walked in, she was all smiles and saying things like: Well, it’s the Mystery Man. I knew you were a celebrity, and so on. Quite taken with me, as they say. And I was all, Pish-posh, it’s no big deal, that kind of crap. I paid for the papers, we chatted about books and things, and I left, felling pretty good about myself, though she seemed a little odd at the end.

When I got back to my car, I looked at myself in the rear view mirror and found out why she’d suddenly gone cold. There was a booger the size of a B-52 hanging out of my nose.

My (Very) Brief Movie Career

Although my wife grew up in New York, she is a big Boston Red Sox fan. She gets it from me, I’ve been suffering with the Sox since birth, so them winning it all last year was great.

Several years ago, I saw a notice in a Boston newspaper for a casting call. A film company was looking for extras to appear in a movie starring John Travolta. A few scenes were to be filmed in Fenway Park and all the extras would be portraying Red Sox fans.

My wife is very photogenic, and I was convinced that the movie people would see her and put her in the film. It took me two days, though, to convince her to go down to Fenway Park to the casting call. Finally just to shut me up, she agreed and down we went. The casting call was being held at a huge night club next to the park called Avalon. We get there, and there are about 5,000 people inside, and this was the third day of casting! My wife went through the process, filling out forms, having her picture taken and so on, essentially an afternoon spent waiting in long lines. I was waiting with her as she went for one station to the other. As we were waiting in one line, a guy walked up to me and handed me a red ticket. He said: Hold on to this, an announcement will be made soon. Then he walked away. I thought they were giving away a door prize or something. Eventually, we all file into a huge room where the producers explain to the masses that if they still wanted to be an extra, they would have to get down to Fenway Park the following Monday at 6AM, in summer clothes (this was in late October) and be prepared to sit around for three days ­ all for $40 and a box lunch.

This was not for my wife, so we got up to go when the producers announced that anyone with a red ticket should stay behind. In this huge room, I was one of just three people with a red ticket. Everyone else filed out, except myself and two African American women. I had no idea what the hell was going on by this time.

The two women were whisked away somewhere, so now its just my wife and I sitting alone in this big room. Finally another producer arrives. He thanked me for hanging around and then says he wants “me” to be in the movie. Was I interested in playing a bit part? I thought it was a joke, but he said I had “a look,” they needed. They couldn’t tell me what the part was, (it wasn’t for the Fenway Park scenes) but would give me more information if I was interested. I couldn’t believe it was happening — neither could my wife. So, even though I was writing a book on deadline, I agreed.

I had my picture taken a bunch of times and filled out many forms. By this time, after all the hoopla, I was convinced I was going to play John Travolta’s best friend in the movie. After I was processed, the producer told me his company in Hollywood would call me the following week. Sure enough, the call came late one night. They said they still couldn’t tell me what part I was to play, but that I should get to a place in Woburn, Massachusetts, (about 40 minutes from where we live) at 6AM the next morning, and that I should “Wear warm clothes you don’t expect to wear ever again.” That was the first indication that I wasn’t being cast as Travolta’s sidekick.

I showed up on the movie set the next day (actually it was an abandoned state mental facility) to find hundreds of Hollywood people, extras, lights, cameras, Teamsters, a huge production. I was processed yet again, pictures taken, forms filled out. I was dressed in very old clothes as instructed. I was told to wait in a trailer with about two dozen other guys, all my age, all of them also wearing old clothes. Frankly though, these guys looked liked they’d just been cast in “The Road Warrior” or a prison movie. Broken noses, missing teeth, scars, tattoos. A roomful of penitentiary faces. If there were any mirrors around, they would have broken on the spot.

Finally, a producer told us why we were here: we were all going to play workers in a hazardous waste factory. The movie ­ titled “A Civil Action”­ is about a crusading lawyer (John Travolta) who stops a big company from dumping pollutants into Woburn’s water supply ­ a true story, by the way. In other words, we were going to be the bad guys. We were all sent to the wardrobe trailer where they checked to see if our clothes were crappy enough for the movie. The wardrobe trailer was run by two guys who would have been perfect on “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” — if you know what I mean. They took one look at me and started screaming: “Complete make-over!” I was pulled out of line and put in even crappier clothes. They told me I’d have to pay for them if I lost them.

What followed was a string of very long, very cold days basically hanging around waiting for cameras to be set up, lights to be ready, etc etc. It was freezing out, (it was November by this time) but I got lucky the first day when they picked me to be one of two guys in a truck that was supposed to drive right through a huge scene where hazardous waste was essentially being smuggled out of the plant. There were about 50 people in the scene, so it took a long time to set up and choreograph ­ and two days to shoot. We did this truck driving scene at least 40 times each day ­ again, I was lucky because I was able to sit inside the truck between takes and we had the heater going full blast and were able to listen to the radio. The guy who was playing the driver was a human bowling ball who was all over Boston TV at the time playing a construction worker in Ford commercials. His name was Bob Dugan, another Boston Irishman, and a real nice guy. He once played Ricki Lake’s father in a movie. I still see him on TV ads occasionally.

When we weren’t needed outside, all us mug faces sat in the cafeteria and played poker. They fed us three times a day ­ they call it craft services in the biz — and the food was outstanding. I got to meet John Travolta and also the guy who plays Carla’s husband Nick on “Cheers.” Before this, Travolta always seemed to me to be a typical Hollywood asshole, but I gotta say he was real down-to-Earth with us. He made sure he met and shook hands with every extra on the set, and he would always talk to us if we happened to run into him walking around. After a while people were turning up with stuff for him to autograph ­ record albums and things­ and he was always very accommodating.

Meanwhile, I didn’t tell anyone what I did for a living, but every time I called home to check my answering machine there was a message from my editor asking me where the hell my next book was.

I wound up doing it for five days over the next couple weeks. I got paid $110 a day and won another $100 or so playing cards. As I was leaving on the last day, the casting director called me aside and asked if I was available for other work. I asked him for what kind of movies. He said:” Bar scenes and prison scenes, exclusively.” (See a pattern forming here?) I said, Sure, call my people.

The movie came out about a year later. One third of the way into the film, there is a scene where Travolta walks up from some woods and sees the hazardous plant with barrels of pollutants scattered all over it. A truck drives right by the camera. I’m the passenger in that truck. Total screen time: 1.2 seconds.


The Price of Fame…

I was a DJ for a few years at a small college station in upstate New York. My show was The Mack Maloney Show and we would do all kinds of crazy things. This was the 1980s, before anyone up in the Albany area really knew about Howard Stern. We used to give away free pizzas if two girls would come to the studio and French kiss for ten seconds. We once had a beer drinking contest on the air. We used to have a contest called ” Name That Food” where I’d read out the ingredients to the worst junk food imaginable and people would call in trying to guess what it was. We were very close to the Wilton Correctional Facility, so we pretended my radio sidekick was a murderer on work-release from the prison. The show after mine was a Grateful Dead show and the DJ was very serious about the music. So we spontaneously started a “Jerry Garcia Is Dead” hoax during one show, just to goof on her. She believed us and proceeded to do a three hour tear-filled tribute to Jerry until someone finally called her and told her it wasn’t true. But so many people had heard her on the air that it wound up as a big story in one of the Albany newspapers. (We told her Jerry died while jogging — and she believed us!”) The college eventually made us apologize to her.

Anyway, I used to give away Wingman books as prizes too, so after a while, people started connecting me with the books. My show was on 6-10 Tuesday nights and we would get a fair number of women calling in, requesting songs. One night, before a show, I stopped in a local drugstore to buy some batteries. The woman behind the counter waited on me. When I asked her for the batteries, she looked up at me and then put her hands over her eyes and started saying: “No – I can’t look at you . . .” I’m thinking, what the frigis this? She said: “Are you the guy on the radio?” I said: “Yes.” She said: “Oh no – I can’t look at you. I recognize your voice. I listen to you all the time. But you don’t look anything like I thought you did!” She was almost crying. She got me the batteries and took my money, etc, all while keeping one hand over her eyes. When she was done, she kind of waved me away. She never looked at me again. I remember walking back to my car stunned. Proof positive: I had a face made for radio.

Dress for Success

Let’s start this blog with a humorous little anecdote…

I was interviewed on TV when I lived in upstate NY. I lived around the corner from this variety store. I used to buy the paper and beer there every few days but they didn’t really know me. I walked in the day after being on TV and the woman behind the counter says: “Did I see you on TV last night?” I said: “Yes — but how did you know it was me?” And she said: “Because you’re wearing the same shirt.”