1. Archive

WFLA anchor receives threatening postcard

The card adds to the mystery surrounding death threats sent to Tampa Tribune employees.

A menacing postcard mailed to a news anchor at WFLA-TV is the latest twist in a long-running criminal investigation involving extortion demands and threats of mass murder against executives and employees of the Tampa Tribune.

The Tribune has spent at least $3-million investigating the threats, a former publisher said, but so far no one has been arrested.

Last month, someone sent anchor Irene Maher a threatening postcard that appears to be from the same person who threatened Tribune management about three years ago, WFLA-TV executives said. The station and the Tribune are owned by Media General, based in Richmond, Va.

"I know we suspected it might come from someone over there _ someone from the Trib," said WFLA news director Dan Bradley. Bradley said the postcard was not a death threat but included "threatening language."

The investigation, conducted jointly by Tampa police, Hillsborough sheriff's deputies and the FBI, included extensive surveillance of $10,000 in extortion money buried near the Tribune building in an attempt to catch the letter writer. No arrests were made and the money was never claimed, said former Tribune publisher Jack Butcher, who was one of four executives targeted about three years ago by someone he described as "deranged."

"The threats were extremely bad," Butcher said. "The overall central theme was, "I want to go down in history as the greatest mass murderer of people in the workplace.' I was afraid for my employees."

The writer, who left notes in offices and hallways inside the Tribune and sent messages through interoffice mail, said he was told what to do by a spirit, Butcher said. The person _ presumed to be a man _ also said he was waiting for instructions for when to strike and planned "to kill 50, 60, 70 people" at the Tribune after murdering the targeted executives, Butcher said. The person also mocked the executives by telling them what was discussed during private Tribune meetings.

Tribune security officials, who also handle security for WFLA-TV, compared the postcard Maher received with the letters sent to Tribune employees and concluded they were from the same source, said WFLA-TV operations manager Rick McEwen.

"They know it's the same person" because of similar handwriting, McEwen said. "They think it's an ex-employee of the Trib."

Tribune publisher Reid Ashe, who was threatened after replacing Butcher, declined to comment.

Maher said she continues to be frightened by the incident. "It was so disturbing, when I got beyond the first few words, I stopped reading," she said. "No one has ever threatened me in quite that way."

Before he retired in July 1997, Butcher said he was offered around-the-clock protection but declined. Other executives had 24-hour bodyguards. The Tribune hired a security firm to investigate.

"The Tribune spent close to $3-million dealing with that" before he left, Butcher said. "Those were direct costs. God only knows how much we spent" in indirect costs.

When the suspect left instructions to bury $10,000 under a pole near the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, the Tribune complied. Cameras were posted, and undercover investigators dressed as transients monitored the money for six weeks before the money finally was retrieved, Butcher said.

Butcher said investigators pored over Tribune personnel files for clues to the suspect and analyzed handwriting samples throughout the company. "We think we know who it is," Butcher said, "but can't prove it."

Most of the 18 to 20 letters were left in hallways, offices or newspaper racks, he said, or sent through interoffice mail about every four to five weeks.

The person also mocked investigators.

"We would have a security meeting _ the FBI, Tampa Police and the sheriff _ and the guy called the FBI on his cell phone" during the meeting, Butcher said. But the suspect's calls were always muffled, so it was difficult to tell if it was a woman or a man.

"We would think it was a he," he said, "but we were not certain."

Butcher said the suspect's motives were never clear.

About four months before he retired, Butcher said, a caller told him the threats would stop. They did, but only for a while.

About a year ago, Butcher said, police told him others had received threats and asked him whether he had received any. Butcher said he had not.