Plaza shut down by bomb scare

A bomb scare in Lithia Park on Friday afternoon forced the evacuation of the Plaza, parts of Lithia Park, Calle Guanajuato and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for four hours before police determined the "bomb" was harmless.

At 12:45 p.m., the Ashland Police Department responded to a device that looked like a homemade bomb, which had been placed on the Abraham Lincoln Statue at the entrance to Lithia Park. Police had the Plaza and the surrounding area closed until almost 5 p.m.

Police estimated between a few hundred and 1,000 people were cordoned off from the center of downtown, and some 600 people were displaced from a show at the OSF, as Ashland awaited the arrival the Oregon State Police bomb squad.

Until the arrival of the OSP bomb experts, APD proceeded as if the hoax was an actual bomb, despite a note attached to the device that indicated it was a farce.

"There is a note that says it's a hoax, but the note could be a hoax," Deputy Ashland Police Chief Rich Walsh said at around 1:30 p.m. "We can't take that chance."

When the bomb squad arrived, they used a robot to lift the fake bomb and set it on the ground away from the statue, before shooting a high-powered "water cannon" to destroy it. APD Sgt. Teresa Selby said this is the standard procedure for disposing a potential explosive device.

"It's the only safe way to take care of it," she said.

The robot was controlled by a fiber-optic cable from a bomb squad van about 250 feet from the statue.

After the device was shot with a water cannon, which itself created a loud bang, bomb experts confirmed that the incident was, in fact, a farce.

The device consisted of several batteries strapped together with duct tape and paper, with wires connected to a clock. There was a note on the paper, written in cutout magazine letters, but police didn't know exactly what the message said.

Many city employees, police officers and public works employees &

who helped to keep people away from the scene &

watched the robot operate from the Community Development building on Winburn Way.

City Administrator Martha Bennett decided the building would be a safer location to use as an emergency command center, and moved employees there. Bennett, several city employees, police and fire officials sat around a table in that building to discuss how to proceed as they waited for the bomb squad. Members of the bomb squad traveled from Diamond Lake to Ashland for the emergency.

Selby, who was in charge in the absence of APD Chief Terry Holderness, directed officers and employees as to what should be done to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

"Can we get the street department manning this barricade?" she said into a cell phone as the bomb squad was still a half-hour away. At times, Selby had cell phones in each hand, communicating with her officers. Police radios were not used for a while because they can sometimes interact with radio-controlled explosives. "Have [Officer] Lee go up to Shakespeare and tell him not to let anyone through."

Bennett and Ashland Finance Director Lee Tuneberg leafed through the city's emergency operations plan, a green binder with protocol for such situations, while others waited for orders from Selby and Walsh. Walsh, the deputy chief, was called into work on his day off and drove in with a pickup truck loaded with hay.

When Sgt. Eric Fox of Jackson County Sheriff's Department arrived on the scene, he borrowed a photograph from an Ashland Daily Tidings reporter to inspect the device.

"It looks like its intent is to take out the statue," he said, prompting laughter in the command center as people remembered the oft-troubled history of the Lincoln Statue.

Joe Franell, the city's information technology director, used Google Earth to determine how far away the Community Development building was from the device. It was 312 feet and the danger zone was identified as a 300-foot circle surrounding the statue.

As this was happening, APD Detective Bon Stewart was patrolling Lithia Park for clues as to who could be responsible for the prank.

"We were looking for people who may be a little too interested in what was going on," he said. "We looked around and took some pictures."

The last bomb scare in the city occurred this year at Ashland High School on May 4. Walsh said he remembered a bomb scare at a Plaza business about 20 years ago, when he was still a patrol officer. During the years in between the two Plaza-area bomb scares, Walsh said there have been "five or six" other bomb scares in which fake bombs were used.

In addition to the fear that spread through Ashland, Walsh said the only damage done was to city staff.

"We're short-staffed as it is," Walsh said. "It creates quite a strain on our folks who are already working long hours and overtime."

Bennett said the finance department would be working this weekend as the scare happened on the last day of the fiscal year.

When the fake bomb was removed, the APD began searching the area for a second device, just in case. Police said possession of a hoax destructive device is a misdemeanor.

"We'll be taking the evidence to the forensics lab," Walsh said during a news conference after the device was removed. "If we can figure out who did this they are going to pay the price."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 226 or .

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