Nearly three months after an envelope with traces of rat poison temporarily shut down Frederick Memorial Hospital, police were still not certain if a crime occurred.
The envelope was opened at a house in the 400 block of Military Road on May 2 before it was brought to the hospital’s emergency department just before noon. The department was reopened by 3:30 p.m. when Frederick police, with the help of FBI specialists, determined the package contained only trace amounts of barium carbonate, a toxic but fairly common substance used in commercial rat poison, said Sgt. Andrew Alcorn, a supervisor with Frederick police’s Criminal Investigation Division.
While detectives were able to trace the package from its origin through mail carriers to its eventual recipient, the question of where the substance inside came from remained elusive, Alcorn said.
“It could have been put in there by someone working in the mail system, it could have been added when the package was opened, or it also could have been a cross contamination,” Alcorn said, citing just a few of the most likely scenarios.
No charges were filed in the case, which was officially suspended Friday morning, Alcorn said, adding that a suspended case was not the same as a closed case.
“In a case like this that is so serious, we don’t want to close it out entirely because something could always come out in a future interview or we could receive a tip that may allow us to say, ‘OK, now, with this new information, we’re going to reopen this case,’ so we’ve left that possibility open,” Alcorn said.
That said, the substance prompted a serious response when the envelope was opened May 2.
Jay Zimmerman, who lives at the house the envelope was addressed to on Military Road, drove himself and his partner to the hospital after opening the envelope in his study and noticing what he described as a smattering of crystals inside sometime around 11:30 a.m. that day.
Sitting in his living room July 18, Zimmerman clearly recalled the anxiety he felt in those first few minutes as he and his husband examined the package.
“When I opened it up it was kind of dark in there because sometimes I shut the curtain, but the next thing I know my arm was just burning,” Zimmerman said. “Then I started looking and I thought, ‘What is on here?’ That’s when I called for Walter ... and when he came in, he picked it up and I saw more of it. They were like crystals.”
The letter in the envelope was addressed to Zimmerman from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg to notify him that he was to be removed from federal service with the agency, a position Zimmerman said he held for 33 years.
While Zimmerman retired from NIST in June, he believes the substance was added to the envelope by one of his former employers as retaliation for an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint he filed against the agency in January. The complaint remained active as of Friday.
The complaint alleges discrimination and harassment dating to 2014 based on, among other factors, Zimmerman’s sexual orientation and disability due to a previous cancer diagnosis.
Rich Press, a NIST public affairs specialist, declined to comment in detail regarding either Zimmerman’s original complaint or his subsequent claims that a NIST employee added barium carbonate to the letter he received May 2.
“NIST takes equal employment opportunity concerns seriously and has a rigorous process for addressing them,” Press wrote in an email response to The Frederick News-Post’s questions. “The Privacy Act prevents NIST from commenting further on specific employee concerns.”
Zimmerman voiced his concerns about the substance with the hospital’s emergency department May 2, according to 911 call recordings obtained by The Frederick News-Post in a Maryland Public Information Act request.
“We have a patient here who received a package in the mail and says that there’s a green substance in it and that he’s a chemist, or, I’m sorry, that his boss is a chemist,” a hospital employee told a 911 call-taker shortly after 11:52 a.m. that day. “... He says that he has a burn on his arm and his partner is having some respiratory difficulties after ingesting whatever the substance is.”
The hospital employee then described the substance and sent firefighters a cellphone picture while providing more information about possible contaminants at Zimmerman’s house and directing first responders to the hospital entrance.
Despite the calm evident in that initial call, tensions were high as the first units converged on the hospital, said Tom Coe, a battalion chief with the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services.
“That incident obviously proved challenging because it stops the flow of patients into the emergency room,” Coe said, looking back on the incident. “... So it was out of the ordinary for the effect that it had on our emergency medical services, but not out of the ordinary as it applied to unknown substance responses.”
Recordings of firefighter radio transmissions indicate all incoming ambulances were ordered diverted from FMH at 12:01 p.m., but neither hospital representatives nor fire and rescue personnel could provide an exact number of patients diverted during the 3½-hour lockdown as of Friday.
“We were focused on managing the patients that we had within our care once the decision was made to lock the campus down,” said Michael McLane, assistant vice president of support services for the hospital, in a telephone interview Friday. “... We were able to provide care to the patients who were in isolation, as well as the rest of the patients who were in the emergency department at that time.”
Meanwhile, county fire and rescue personnel were putting their own response together based on previous training and annual drills conducted with hospital staff, McLane said.
The county’s hazardous materials response team — which is staffed by at least five specially trained personnel around the clock at Station 33 in Spring Ridge — set up at the hospital. Meanwhile, a separate hazmat team based at Fort Detrick secured Zimmerman’s home, Coe said.
By 12:31 p.m., firefighters and hospital workers had isolated the HVAC system for the emergency section and accounted for all 20 to 25 patients and employees quarantined inside, the radio transmissions indicate.
From there, it was a relatively simple matter of identifying the substance, Coe said.
“Once we know what the substance is or have a relative idea of the substance’s properties, then we can make some better decisions on how we’re going to neutralize the substance if that’s required and care for the patients that were contaminated,” Coe said.
In this case, little follow-up treatment was required once investigators had evaluated the substance.
An initial identification of the substance was done shortly after a crew of Division of Fire and Rescue Services specialists entered the hospital and FBI lab technicians later verified the result in the weeks after the incident, Alcorn said Friday.
“It was a very, very minute, trace amount, so there was not enough to do any significant bodily harm,” Alcorn said of the conclusions reached by the FBI.
A subsequent investigation into whether any crimes occurred later led detectives back to NIST, where surveillance footage was obtained of the package in question being sealed, Alcorn said.
“There is nothing on the video that appears to be suspicious or that indicates any of that substance was put into the package at that point,” Alcorn said.
Even though the police department’s investigation was suspended, first responders still found value in an after-action review completed between hospital staff, police, fire and rescue personnel, and their federal partners.
Since no significant injuries resulted from the call and patients were readmitted to the hospital shortly after the last fire engines cleared the scene, the consensus was that the unified response was an overall success.
“While we can always learn from an event, our key takeaway from this incident was the great communication we have with all of our community partners,” McLane said. “It really stressed the system, even from a county or a regional point of view, but it was an event that really demonstrated how well everyone worked together.”