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Friday, April 20, 2012

The Pitt Bomb Threat Case: The Odd Couple

     People who make bomb threats are rarely terrorists, or even criminals who lay down bombs. Terrorists intending to blow up buildings full of people seldom call ahead to warn their victims. The vast majority of bomb threats are hoaxes perpetrated by disgruntled workers, customers, clients, patients, ex-employees, high school kids, and college students. The intent is to harass, disrupt, and frighten. Bomb hoaxers are bored, angry, insane or emotionally unstable folks who get a thrill out of seeing emergency vehicles, flashing lights, and people being evacuated out of buildings. As serial offenders, if not caught quickly, they can cause a lot of havoc.

The University of Pittsburgh Bomb Threat Case

     Since February 13, 2012, the University of Pittsburgh's main campus in the Oakland section of the city has received more than 60 bomb threats. While a few have been delivered in the form of handwritten notes, most have been emailed to area reporters through an anonymous remailer that bounces off servers in other countries. As a result, the origins of these threats are virtually impossible to trace.

     The Pitt bomb threats have achieved the goals of the person or persons who have made them. More than 110 campus buildings have been evacuated, and students are frightened. The confusion and inconvenience have also created a lot of excitement and publicity. The case is being investigated by a regional Joint Terrorism Task Force comprised of federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel. Making a bomb threat is a federal offense.

A Couple of Odd Suspects, Or Just An Odd Couple?

     One of the persons who has come under suspicion in the Pitt bomb threat case was born a man (and biologically still is) but lives and dresses as a woman. His/her partner was born as a woman, but lives and dresses up like a man. (In referring to these people, the pronouns "he" and "she" will correspond to their sexual identifies rather than their biological gender.)

     In November 2011, a 22-year-old junior computer science student attending the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown named Seamus Johnston, a female living as a man undergoing hormone treatments, was arrested by campus police and charged with indecent exposure, defiant trespass, and disorderly conduct. Mr. Johnston had repeatedly defied the school's edict not to use men's restrooms and locker rooms. According to the rules, students must use these facilities in accordance with their biological gender, not their sexual identifies. Mr. Johnston, believing that gender identification should be the determinant, challenged the school's restroom policy. (I guess the day will come when colleges and universities have separate sets of restrooms and locker rooms for transgender students. Maybe they will get special dormitories, and an academic department devoted to transgender studies.)

     Mr. Johnston and his partner, Ms. Katherine Ann McCloskey, a 55-year-old man going around as a woman, reside in an apartment in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Ms. McCloskey, a Pitt-Johnstown alumnus, has been living as a female for about a year.

     Pitt administrators, in January 2012, expelled Johnston from the university. Seeking re-instatement, Mr. Johnston has filed a complaint with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Rights. (Where I presume he will get a sympathetic ear.)

     On April 11, 2012, FBI agents investigating the bomb case questioned Johnston and McCloskey as "potential suspects" in the making of three dozen bomb threats. The agents asked the couple to voluntarily surrender their computers. On the grounds of personal privacy, the suspects refused.

     The day after the interviews, Mr. Johnston and Ms. McCloskey received subpoenas to appear before a federal grand jury investigating the case. Pursuant to the subpoena, the couple must bring their computers to the grand jury hearing.

     On April 17, the day of their grand jury testimony, Johnston and McCloskey refused to have their fingerprints taken. They also refused to provide samples of their handwriting. Within an hour of their refusals, they found themselves standing before federal judge Nora Barry Fischer who threatened to hold them in contempt if they did not comply with the terms of the subpoena. The defendants agreed to cooperate.

     In speaking to reporters, Seamus Johnston said, "I wasn't involved in any of the bomb threats. Personally, I feel the fact they [FBI] continued to investigate me is nothing short of retaliatory on the University's part. I feel they are wasting valuable resources in finding whoever is responsible for threatening the safety of my friends at main campus."

     On the day of the couple's grand jury appearance, FBI agents raided their apartment and seized two computers, CDs, a router, and a cable modem. That day, agents also seized a computer server from a New York internet host through which at least three bomb threats had been made.

     On April 18, the day after Johnston and McCloskey testified before the grand jury, eight University of Pittsburgh buildings were evacuated following a pair of bomb threats.

(Material in this blog is based upon reportage in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.)


     As of May 26, 2012, Johnston and McCloskey have not been charged in the bomb hoax case. In a typical politician's response to a difficult problem, Senator Bob Casey has proposed a new law, the Campus Security Act. At the cost of $2.75 million, the Department of Justice would operate a center that trains, conducts research, develops emergency protocols (we don't have these now?), and enhances cooperation between campus police and local law enforcement. Who in their right mind believes that a new federal law, and another layer of bureaucracy will solve anything?


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