Pitt withdraws reward in bomb threats case after receiving anonymous email

By Michael Macagnone

Pitt has withdrawn the $50,000 reward in the bomb-threat case, two days after an anonymous email… Updated 8:45 p.m. A group calling itself “The Threateners” claimed in an email late on Saturday that it will stop sending bomb threats to Pitt buildings because the University dropped its $50,000 reward offer for information in the case.

The group, in a pair of untraceable emails sent Friday and Saturday to The Pitt News, claimed responsibility for threats emailed after Pitt first offered a $10,000 reward for information on March 30, more than a month after bomb threats at Pitt began.

The first email, received on Friday, said, “This all began when you, Nordenberg, put out a $10,000 — then $50,000 — ‘reward’ (bounty) for some young kid who’d pranked the University.”

The Friday email also references an email threat against the chancellor’s residence sent to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 10, when the group made the same offer. This offer was not reported by the media at the time.

Pitt received Friday’s email from “The Threateners,” forwarded by The Pitt News, on Friday afternoon.

Pitt spokesman Robert Hill said in an email Friday that, on the advice of federal law enforcement officials leading the investigation, the University had decided after receiving the April 10 threat “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.”

He said that the University, along with law enforcement, would continue to pursue “an appropriate end through the arrest and conviction of those who have committed these crimes.”

But the University removed the $50,000 reward announcement from its website on Saturday. Hill confirmed Sunday that Pitt had withdrawn the reward, but said that he could not comment beyond that.

The email received by The Pitt News from “The Threateners” on Saturday also disavowed any association with people “publicly identified as suspects, or ‘persons of interest,’” in the case.

The only publicly identified persons of interest in the case are a couple from Johnstown: former Pitt student Seamus Johnston, 22, and Katherine Anne McCloskey, 56, who were subpeonaed to appear before a federal grand jury and provide information on April 12.

The emails

Both emails sent to The Pitt News over the weekend included certain similarities to each other and previous emails that increased their credibility.

Friday’s email accurately predicted a 24-hour gap in threats from 8 a.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Saturday. After 8 a.m. Saturday morning, Pitt evacuated eight buildings: Litchfield Towers, the Cathedral of Learning, and Salk, Pennsylvania, Ruskin and Scaife halls.

The email on Friday also mentioned the offer on April 10 that had previously gone unreported.

“We make the same offer to you now. Simply withdraw the ‘reward,’ and we will end our actions permanently,” Friday’s email said.

Both emails employed the Mixmaster email remailer reportedly used in sending the other threats and was forwarded through the same final server before reaching The Pitt News.

The Mixmaster program is an anonymous remailer that sends an email to multiple servers before it arrives at its final destination.

Friday’s email, formatted as a letter to the editor, addressed Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and the Pitt administration.

The second message, sent on Saturday, was called a “press release,” and addressed the end of the authors’ “campaign” against Pitt and the group’s non-affiliation with the Johnstown couple.

Both emails were forwarded to Pitt administration and Pitt police. These were the first such emails that did not threaten a Pitt building that have come to light.

Before emailing a University statement, Pitt spokesman Robert Hill initially declined comment on Friday’s email.

In discussing the University’s decision not to negotiate with the group after the April 10 threat, Hill pointed out that by then, the University had received more than 60 threats.

It is unclear whether a request by Pitt police chief Tim Delaney on April 4 is related to the April 10 threat or Friday’s email to The Pitt News. Delaney asked that the perpetrators contact him if they had an issue with the University.

“I want to see if the individual doing this will contact me,” Delaney said at the time. “It may be a student, it may not be a student. Whoever it is, give me a call.”

The investigation

In the latest step in increased security measures, Provost Patricia Beeson sent a letter to students Sunday detailing Pitt’s plans for finals week. See The Pitt News’ related story “Pitt outlines new plans for final exams and dormitories” for more details on the finals preparations.

The measures came as the University’s semester entered its final week. There have been more than 140 bomb threats to various campus buildings since February.

Saturday morning’s threats brought Pitt’s semester total to 143, a count that began with a threat in a women’s bathroom at the Chevron Science Center on Feb. 13. From mid-February until the end of March, threats came intermittently — at most two a week — and only targeted Chevron and the Cathedral of Learning through threats written on bathroom stalls.

After the University offered a $10,000 reward on March 30 followed by a $50,000 reward on April 2, the threats became more frequent, used an anonymous email remailer program and began targeting dormitories and multiple buildings at once. In the intervening three weeks, the University has received more than 100 threats.

The string of threats has drawn the attention of federal law enforcement officials, including the FBI, the U.S. Attorneys Office and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania David Hickton announced last week that law enforcement officials had narrowed the investigation to a list of

“potential suspects.”