Anthrax Side Show

Media madness at disease central is no joke

The front perimeter of the American Media property is lined with young cypress trees, all now connected by a span of police tape. A Boca Raton police officer stands erect, hands behind his back, just in front of the site's main driveway. It's an overcast, gray day, but he wears sunglasses nonetheless. The Boca cops are in charge of security, and the department's hazardous-materials squad is decontaminating investigators as they enter and exit the building. Most of the activity in the compound is obscured by large trucks and trees, but men in white suits and green rubber boots can be seen sitting in folding chairs beneath a pavilion, as though relaxing at a Sunday-afternoon picnic. That macabre scene, however, is hours old and has lost its drama.

There's a ripple of expectation, however, when Lt. Frank Montilli of the Boca Raton Police Department steps over the tape line, takes a deep breath, and walks across the street into the media tide. Montilli has short-cropped black hair and a military demeanor yet seems genuinely interested in providing as much information as he can -- which turns out to be very little. "I do not know what's going on inside," Montilli says, words that become a mantra as reporter after reporter probes for details. Is the FBI sharing any information? "About safety matters, yes," Montilli answers. "About its ongoing investigation, no." Basically his men are keeping the curious out and the agents decontaminated. He identifies several of his department's vehicles and the mission of each.

"What about the all-black RV with black-tinted windows?" someone asks.

"Probably the FBI's," Montilli replies.

But does he know for sure, the questioner presses. "If it's mysterious and black, it's probably the FBI's," he responds to the delight of the press corps.

Reporters wander back to the swale where photographers from the Palm Beach Post and Sun-Sentinelhave occupied Five Palms Knoll with telephoto lenses the size of howitzers. At long last there is a bit of activity among the white-suit set, albeit not breathtaking: Someone pushes a cart full of clothing detergents. The photographers snap furiously. "So now we know how to get rid of anthrax: Tide and Clorox," wisecracks one of them.

At about 2:30 p.m. a Sergeant Duggan with the Boca Raton Police strides determinedly to each of the satellite trucks, telling the occupants that the owner of the parking lot, which belongs to a nearby business, wants them out of there. "The guy's being pretty cool about it," advises Duggan. "You gotta give him some credit; it's been two days of this. He doesn't want them off in the next five minutes, but you're going to have to move them before six." Duggan has hit them where they live, because the next big batch of standups will occur at six. By the time Duggan reaches the last truck, several have already pulled up anchor and are jockeying for precious roadside parking 50 feet away. One TV reporter places orange pylons to save a space.

"I'd suggest you move as soon as possible," Duggan says to the guy in the last truck. "It looks like the Texas land rush right now."

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