A group calling itself "The Threateners" has declared an end to what it claims is its emailed bomb-threat campaign against the University of Pittsburgh because Pitt officials have met its demand: withdrawal of the university's promised reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for the bomb threats.
"The university authorities at Pitt have withdrawn the $50000 [sic] reward they offered, and, as our only demand has been met, our campaign is over with immediate effect," according to an emailed statement signed "The Threateners" that was obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
In the statement, the group disavowed responsibility for any of the handwritten threats, first found Feb. 13 in a women's restroom in the university's Chevron Science Center, that prompted university officials to begin offering the reward. The group's campaign, according to the statement, involved only emails beginning on or about March 30. And the responsibility for those emailed threats belongs to The Threateners alone, according to the statement.
"Finally, we'd like to point out that none of the people publicly identified as suspects, or 'persons of interest,' had any connection to us or to our campaign," the message states.
A Cambria County transgender couple, 22-year-old Seamus Johnston and 56-year-old Katherine Anne McCloskey, have been under investigation in connection with the threats. On Wednesday, FBI agents served the couple with a search warrant and seized a personal computer, laptop, cell phone, computer router and some CDs from their Jackson Township apartment.
Mr. Johnston said the group's claim of ending the bomb threats and its claim of sole responsibility for them left him guardedly optimistic.
"It sounds too good to be true, but it does make me feel hopeful, against my better judgment," said Mr. Johnston, who said he had never heard of a group called the "The Threateners."
Mr. Johnston maintains his and his partner's innocence in the string of bomb threats.
The most recent messages seem to be the first to try to communicate with the university without also threatening violence.
On Friday morning, a group referring to itself for the first time as The Threateners sent an "open letter" addressed to Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg to the opinion page of the university's student-run newspaper, The Pitt News. In that letter, the group repeated an offer made on April 10 to cease the bomb threats if the university would drop its reward offer.
"This all began when you, Nordenberg, put out a $10 000 - then $50 000 [sic] 'reward' (bounty) for some young kid who'd pranked the University. Remember?" the letter states. "That REALLY angered us! Hey, man! This is America! We don't treat our kids like that!"
Each bomb threat against the university had been reviewed by federal law enforcement officials, including the United States attorney and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., said Robert Hill, Pitt's vice chancellor of public affairs, in a statement Friday evening. Those officers gave university officials advice that "was consistent with the widely held view that one should never negotiate with terrorists," according to Mr. Hill.
"More specifically, the University was urged to avoid any form of negotiation with anonymous correspondents claiming responsibility for the criminal acts that have disrupted the lives of our students and of the broader community," according to the statement.
However, information about the reward was removed from Pitt's website Saturday. Mr. Hill has declined to comment about the university's reversal.
Meanwhile, the university is making special arrangements for finals week, according to a letter dated April 22 from university provost and senior vice chancellor Patricia E. Beeson to students, faculty, and staff.
Starting Sunday, she stated, the five buildings being used for final exams will be swept for explosives prior to the beginning of each exam day and increased security will be maintained during and between exams. Only people with valid Pitt ID cards will be allowed to enter the exam buildings and all bags will be checked thoroughly, the letter states.
Those buildings will be evacuated and ENS alerts sent only if law enforcement officers determine there is an imminent threat, according to Ms. Beeson.
Residence halls, she stated, will be swept for explosives every evening starting Sunday and access will continue to be limited to individuals with a valid Pitt ID.
The heightened security for exam week is just the latest adaptation for a university where the bomb threats and resulting evacuations have set the student body and faculty on edge.
Since Feb. 13, Pitt's students, teachers and staff members have been repeatedly evacuated from its dorms, lecture halls and libraries -- late at night, early in the morning, in the middle of classes and research projects -- after discovering or receiving bomb threats. The first threat, discovered on a stall in a women's bathroom at the science center, was followed by occasional messages scrawled on bathroom stalls at the center and inside the Cathedral of Learning.
After Pitt offered a $10,000 reward on March 30, however, the format of the threats changed and the pace of their delivery accelerated. They began arriving as email messages, usually sent to media outlets, using an anonymous remailer program that masked their originating address. On April 2, the university increased the reward to $50,000, and the following week, on April 10, the Post-Gazette received a message threatening the Shadyside home of Mr. Nordenberg.
In that message, the author also said that Mr. Nordenberg "has only to withdraw the $50000 [sic] bounty, to end the threats against Pitt. He has refused. Our offer still stands."
The Post-Gazette passed the note in its entirety to university police, as it has with all the threats it has received, but editors chose to report only the threat against Mr. Nordenberg.
"Throughout this episode we found ourselves in the unfamiliar and often awkward role of intermediary in a news story we also were covering," said David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Post-Gazette. "We developed a practice of passing on to the authorities each communication in full for their evaluation. We did not, and do not, want to transform our newspaper or website into a public relations outlet or negotiating platform for anyone. We published stories about developments in this episode when it became journalistically appropriate to do so."
On Wednesday, FBI agents in Pittsburgh seized material from the couple in Cambria County, while agents in New York City seized a server used by an Internet service provider in Europe through which at least three of the anonymous emailed bomb threats passed.
The Internet hosting service May First/People Link said threats were sent through one of its servers used by the European Counter Network, or ECN, an Italian Internet provider that allows users to send anonymous emails. The organization's leaders have said they believe ECN was hacked for criminal purposes.
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1719. First Published April 23, 2012 12:00 AM