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The FBI investigates threatening letters with white powder sent to GOP lawmakers


Someone has mailed more than 100 state lawmakers and other public officials envelopes containing threats and an unknown white powder. The letters have been reported in three states, and the FBI is investigating. Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar reports.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: Last Friday Republican Representative Rhonda Knudsen received an unassuming letter that had a return address in the town she lives in and represents - Culbertson, a ranching community in northeast Montana, population 753. She believed it came from a constituent until she opened the letter. She described it as vague but threatening with text in several different fonts and sizes. And then she found a smaller envelope inside the letter containing white powder.

RHONDA KNUDSEN: That's an easy chemical warfare tactic. Anthrax has been sent through the mail that way, perhaps ricin, lots of new drugs that I don't even know about.

RAGAR: Knudsen called the local sheriff, who sent a deputy in hazmat gear to collect it. It was sent for testing. And although Knudsen hasn't seen the results yet, she hasn't felt any negative symptoms. The FBI is now investigating the Montana letters, which appear related to more than 100 others targeting state lawmakers and other officials in Kansas and Tennessee first reported June 16. Most appear to be Republicans. The incidents in Tennessee resulted in a temporary lockdown of a legislative office building last week. Officials in Kansas received the letters at their homes. The FBI says laboratory testing is ongoing but at this time has not indicated a risk to public safety. It says additional testing will be needed to fully identify the unknown substance. Montana Representative Rhonda Knudsen.

KNUDSEN: I don't know who this is coming from, but obviously this is from somebody who doesn't agree with me, my philosophy, my politics.

RAGAR: Three more Montana lawmakers received similar letters, all in positions of Republican leadership and including the state House speaker. The speaker's letter was sent to a mailbox at the state capitol in Helena. Staff there are now receiving additional training on handling suspicious material. Testing by a local fire department found the powder in one letter to be flour.

KNUDSEN: They're not going to make me turn around and go in a different direction. It just emboldened me. It gave me strength. It just really made me angry.

RAGAR: Investigators are trying to determine how many letters were sent, who's responsible and their motives. A statement from the Montana Department of Justice says the letters appear to be a deliberate attempt to stoke public fear and interrupt our government process. For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.