- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 21, 2001

A federal judge found probable cause yesterday for prosecutors to proceed in their case against a Stafford, Va., postal worker who is accused of initiating an anthrax hoax because she was upset about postal managers' response to the bioterrorism threat.
Sharon Ann Watson, 31, is charged with knowingly mailing a threatening communication and with unlawful delay or destruction of the mail at the Falmouth post office north of Fredericksburg. She could face up to 20 years in prison.
At Monday's preliminary hearing, FBI special agent Jeffrey Howard testified that Miss Watson confessed to sprinkling baby powder inside a bulk-mail envelope.
"Her intention was to see if anybody would pay attention to this white powder," Mr. Howard said.
The Oct. 25 hoax led to a one-day shutdown of the Falmouth post office.
Defense attorney Christopher Amolsch raised several issues during cross-examination, including the validity of Miss Watson's confession. He asked if Miss Watson had been advised of her rights before the confession. Mr. Howard responded that she had not, just as U.S. Magistrate Barry Poretz ruled that the question was not appropriate for a preliminary hearing.
After the hearing, Mr. Amolsch said that, even if the accusations are true, Miss Watson was subject to extraordinary fears and pressures. Two postal workers at the Brentwood facility in the District diedof inhalation anthrax just days before the Falmouth hoax.
In addition, workers at the Falmouth post office who were concerned about anthrax exposure were being told by private physicians that anthrax tests were unavailable, Mr. Amolsch said.
"Postal workers are dying because they're going to work," he said. "These people are scared to death to go to work."
During the hearing, Mr. Amolsch also questioned whether a letter filled with baby powder constitutes a threatening communication under the law.
Mr. Howard responded that the circumstances of the hoax made the letter a serious threat.
Miss Watson has been placed on administrative leave without pay by the Postal Service, Mr. Amolsch said, which has left her nearly destitute.
Judge Poretz's finding of probable cause allows prosecutors to proceed to a grand jury indictment and eventually to trial.


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