Government suspicion mounted Tuesday that the assassinations of a federal judge and Savannah, Ga., city councilman were racially motivated and linked to two bombs mailed to a federal court and a civil rights agency in the South.
The FBI warned federal courts and civil rights organizations to be wary of suspicious packages, and U.S. marshals maintained tight security for federal judges across the nation, particularly in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to which slain Judge Robert Vance belonged.
A bomb was found and later disabled at an NAACP office in Jacksonville, Fla., and false bomb threats forced authorities to close federal courthouses in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A federal magistrate in Alabama also received a telephone death threat.
Another bomb was found and disarmed Monday at the 11th Circuit courthouse in downtown Atlanta, the same day Savannah attorney Robert Robinson was killed by a packaged bomb. Vance was killed Saturday by a bomb mailed to his home.
Attorney General Richard Thornburg said the four bombs discovered in the South since Saturday 'represent not only a vicious assault on innocent life, but constitute an attack on institutions which protect our basic freedoms.'
'Federal investigators are currently concentrating on a possible racial motivation to the incidents which have occurred in the past four days,' he said. 'We are exploring the possible relationship, if any, among these incidents.'
FBI spokesman Joe Hardy in Atlanta said authorities were worried that other mail bombs could be on their way to potential victims in the legal system as the new threats against officials were reported.
'There's great concern right now that there may be other devices out there,' he said.
In Washington, FBI director William Sessions said the Jacksonville situation could be connected with the earlier bombings in Alabama and Georgia.
The FBI investigated possible links to white supremacists, drug traffickers, 'copycat killers' and 'kooks' in the mail-bomb slayings of Vance and Robinson.
The mail bomb in Jacksonville was disabled and removed Tuesday from the regional headquarters of the NAACP, the FBI said. Bomb experts from the Duval County Sheriff's Department and the federal government were called to the scene late Tuesday morning when a suspicious package was found.
The organization's president, Willye Dennis, told authorities the package had actually arrived at her office at noon Monday, but that she did not have time to open it.
'That may have saved her life,' said Mary Anne Christensen, press aide to Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Hazouri. 'She had to rush out the door to get to a press conference, and her car broke down on the way back, so she never made it back to the office on Monday.'
When Dennis learned Tuesday morning about the death of Robinson, a civil rights attorney and NAACP leader, she remembered the package sitting on her desk and called police, Christensen said.
U.S. Chief Deputy Marshal Jim Hudson said U.S. Magistrate John Carroll of Montgomery, Ala., received a death threat over the telephone at his home shortly after 2 a.m.
'It was a very short conversation,' Hudson said. 'He said, 'I'm going to kill you,' and hung up.'
Extra security was ordered for Carroll's home and he was guarded on his way to work. Hudson said local, state and federal officials were investigating the threat to see if it was linked to the recent bombings.
Carroll once worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., and the center's chief, Morris Dees, said the FBI warned him as a precautionary measure because 'they suspect it was a possibility that white supremacists were involved in the bombings.'
The Montgomery center handles numerous civil rights cases.
Authorities closed federal courthouses in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., briefly when an anonymous caller phoned in a bomb threat. U.S. Marshal Dan Horgan said searches turned up no explosives.NEWLN: more
Postmarks on the mail bombs sent to Birmingham and Atlanta showed the deadly packages were mailed at separate locations in Georgia. Postal authorities could not find a postmark on the mail bomb delivered to Robinson's law office, but the package did contain canceled stamps, said Leo Shatzel, a postal inspector with the U.S. Postal Service.
Shatzel said the mail bomb that killed Vance and seriously injured his wife was mailed last Thursday and the device delivered to the Atlanta courthouse was mailed last Saturday. He would not say which Georgia post offices initially handled the first two bombs.
Shatzel said authorities are concentrating on two common strands in the bombings: the NAACP and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
'Members of the NAACP seem to be the target of this,' he said. 'And, all of the mailings have occurred in the 11th Circuit.'
FBI special agent William Hinshaw said each bomb appeared to come in a package measuring 12 by 9 by 4 inches, and Hearn said the bombs in Georgia and Alabama were packed in nails.
The FBI in Birmingham showed reporters a shoebox-sized package similar to those sent to Vance, Robinson and the Atlanta courthouse. The box was wrapped in brown paper, tied with a string and contained a return address type-written on a red-and-white label in the upper left corner.
Allen Whitaker, special agent in charge of the Birmingham FBI office, said all three packages contained different return addresses and names. The addresses were legitimate, but the people listed apparently were not involved in the bombings, he said.
'There is not a common postmark,' he said. 'There may be excessive postage stamps on the package. We think the sender may not have had a face-to-face transaction with the postal service.'
Authorities said the bombings and threats were similar to an August incident in which a package containing a tear gas canister exploded at the NAACP's Atlanta headquarters.
The Robinson blast came eight hours after a pipe bomb was discovered in the mail at the Atlanta courthouse and one hour after the FBI warned the NAACP's Atlanta office of a possible attack.
Robinson, 41, who was black, recently represented black plaintiffs in a losing desegregation case against the Savannah school district. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the case but Vance was not involved in the ruling.
He also represented the NAACP in a long-running school desegregation case, helped desegregate Savannah's Tybee Island beaches in the 1960s and was a member of local NAACP board of directors.
Former Alabama Ku Klux Klan leader Don Black said in an interview Tuesday some disgruntled members of white supremacist movements believe the legal system works against the white majority.
'They believe the only solution is direct attacks, illegal attacks, on the system,' Black said.
Black noted that Vance was one of three judges whose 1985 ruling paved the way for criminal prosecution of a group of Klansmen involved in a 1979 confrontation with black marchers in Decatur, Ala.
Despite warnings to civil rights agencies such as the NAACP, investigators said drug traffickers also were 'strong suspects' in the attacks.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Florida, Georgia and Alabama, handles a number of appeals on drug cases, and Robinson recently successfully defended a minor defendant in a cocaine trafficking ring.
Robinson was known for keeping a low profile, and his friends and acquaintances speculated a 'copycat killer' had other reasons for murdering him and took advantage of the publicity surrounding the other bombing incidents.
FBI agent Bill Clancy said in Savannah that the copycat-killer angle was 'one theory we have not discounted.'