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For U.S. Capitol Police Officer James “J.J.” Pickett, it was a joke that stopped being funny months ago. Pickett, a 13-year-member of Capitol Hill’s police force, hasn’t worked on the job since November. Worse, he’s staring at five years in a federal prison. This, for allegedly leaving a pile of artificial sweetener on a desk at his post in a House office building, along with a note that read, “Please inhale.” But since Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax scares in Washington, joking about bioterrorism is a prosecutable offense. And no one in the District has learned a harder lesson in that than Pickett. Pickett is a casualty of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s get-tough policy on anthrax hoaxers. That policy has led to federal and state authorities filing charges in more than 50 cases nationwide involving anthrax scares. The problem in Pickett’s case is that no one seems to have been scared, because no one involved ever believed that the substance was anthrax. Nor did anyone present ever believe that anyone wrote the note but Pickett. Pickett, 35, whom colleagues term a soft-spoken veteran officer with a fondness for practical jokes and a near-spotless work record, claims in court papers that the government is making an example of him to demonstrate how aggressively it will pursue anthrax cases. “Officer Pickett committed no crime — at least not one currently on the books,” says a court filing that asks that the indictment be dismissed. “A bad joke is not a crime — even if made during a national scare, and even if made in the basement of a Congressional office building.” Some of Pickett’s colleagues on the Capitol force share that sentiment. “You would hate to think that they would be so petty that they would make a martyr out of somebody, but you never know,” says U.S. Capitol Police Officer Mike DeCarlo, chairman of the officers’ union. “I have definite concerns.” MOCK TRIAL Pickett’s troubles arose from an incident on Nov. 7, as the nation, and particularly Capitol Hill, were gripped by fears surrounding anthrax. The lethal substance had been found in a Senate office building, and traces of it had been discovered in several places throughout the Hill. Capitol Police officers were stretched thin, working 12-hour shifts six days a week. Pickett was stationed at a police post at the subterranean subway stop in the Cannon office building on the House side, with two other officers. Around five that afternoon, Pickett went on a break. After he left, according to court records, the two other officers, John Caldwell and Kari Morgansen, say they found a white powdery substance on the desk, along with a hand-written note. The note read: PLEASE INHALE. YES COULD THIS BE? CALL YOUR DOCTOR FOR FLU-SYMPTOMS. THIS IS A CAPITOL POLICE TRAINING EXERCIZE! I HOPE YOU PASS! Morgansen called her supervisor, Sgt. Gregory Turner. Turner came to the post, contacted Pickett, and asked him about the substance. “It’s Equal, Sarge,” Pickett allegedly told him in response. “I put it there.” In a statement to investigators, Turner says that he was fearful of the public catching sight of the scene, and so swept the powder onto the note and took it with him to his office. Pickett, in court records, claims he was creating a joke exercise to train National Guard troops who were being called in to help the police. His supervisor, Turner, says that Pickett told him that the other officers were in on the joke, something both Caldwell and Morgansen have denied. Morgansen, however, told investigators that she was “shocked” when she saw the note, “but never scared.” She did not believe the powder was anthrax. If she had, she would have called the force’s hazardous material unit, she says. And she states that she never doubted that Pickett had written the note. Neither Caldwell nor Morgansen secured the area as a crime scene, and, indeed, Turner left the post with the evidence. Both Caldwell and Morgansen denied seeing pieces of the Equal packets that Pickett had allegedly used. They were later found by investigators on the desk beneath a telephone cord. After Capitol Police detectives were called in, they apparently retrieved the note and powder from Turner and re-created the scene, taking several photographs that are now in the court record. Pickett was immediately suspended, and investigators continued to speak to the officers present. Both Turner and his supervisor, Lt. Tara Neeld, believed the matter was a small one, an unfunny prank. Neeld pointedly told a senior officer that she could have disciplined Pickett herself without it becoming a criminal matter, court records say. Several Capitol officers contacted, including Neeld and Pickett’s brother, Jeff, a lieutenant on the force, declined to comment on Pickett’s case, citing a department regulation that forbids public comment on pending investigations. Arthur Spitzer, the director of the area chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the ACLU may file suit claiming that the restriction is an unconstitutional restraint of free speech. CAPITOL PUNISHMENT A week after the incident, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District seemed to believe that no crime had occurred, or at least that is what it appeared to tell The Washington Post. According to the paper, the office’s spokesman, Channing Phillips, said the office hadn’t been given enough evidence to charge Pickett. Phillips says now that he was misquoted by the Post. “There was not sufficient evidence at the time, based on the facts that we knew,” he says. “But it was always an ongoing investigation.” A grand jury was convened. Turner, according to court records, told the grand jury that Pickett should not be prosecuted. Pickett’s lawyer, Eli Gottesdiener, claims in court papers that Turner will testify that the prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Bowman, told him that the office was “under a lot of pressure” from “the media” to pursue the case. In court papers, Bowman denies that conversation with Turner ever took place. Instead, Bowman points to an Oct. 16 public pledge by Ashcroft to “prosecute and punish with the full force of our laws those who issue false anthrax threats or any other form of terrorist threat.” Bowman did not return a call for comment. Gottesdiener declined to comment. In January, Pickett was indicted. He was charged with a felony count of making a knowingly false statement “within the jurisdiction of the legislative branch,” an offense that carries a penalty of five years in prison. The second count claims, without specificity, that Pickett “interfered” with the Capitol Police’s performance of its functions, a misdemeanor. Gottesdiener argues in court papers that Pickett cannot be charged with making a false statement when the note he allegedly wrote never claimed the substance was anthrax — or anything else, for that matter. While the government has vowed to crack down on the hoaxers, penalties have been all over the map. In January, while anti-abortion crusader Clayton Lee Waagner, who sent hundreds of hoax anthrax letters to women’s clinics, was sentenced to 30 years in prison, a Florida man named Richard Gabrich received a year’s probation for sending a prank anthrax note filled with cornstarch to a friend. A Cleveland woman who sent a box of sugar to her office in an effort to get a day off received three years’ probation. And federal prosecutors will have to hope that Pickett’s case ends better than a similar anthrax-hoax trial in February. In that case, Kinley Gregg was acquitted by a jury in New Hampshire on federal felony charges of mailing a threatening communication. Last fall, Gregg sent a letter containing table salt to a friend — and the letter leaked salt into a New Hampshire post office. But, as in the Pickett case, the workers who discovered the salt never believed the material was hazardous. “We told the jury in our closing [that] we support the efforts of the government to get the bad guys,” says Gregg’s lawyer, Jeffrey Weinstein of Manchester, N.H. “But the terrorists win if we turn on each other.” In the Pickett case, the defendant is not expected to accept a plea bargain, and a trial could take place this summer. A guilty plea could cost Pickett his job. “He’s certainly not being made an example of,” says Phillips of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “We are taking all these hoaxes seriously.”

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