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Fourth UC Irvine staffer receives letter with white powder and words 'black death'

January 6, 2010 |  1:27 pm

A fourth UC Irvine employee has received an envelope containing a white powder and a message that included the words “black death,” university officials said today.

Authorities were called to the Natural Sciences II building at about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to inspect the envelope addressed to an assistant dean of biological sciences, said Tom Vasich, a university spokesman.

The assistant dean’s office was closed off until 5:45 p.m. while tests were conducted for hazardous materials.

As in the previous cases, the powder was determined to be harmless and no one reported any symptoms, Vasich said. Further tests will be needed to identify the substance.

A counselor received another one of the letters just after 9 a.m. Tuesday. The others were received Monday by a sociology professor and an engineering professor. All four letters were posted in Idaho and were addressed to women on campus, Vasich said.

“People here on campus are treating this very seriously,” he said. “It is a bit unnerving for a campus community of more than 30,000 to have letters like this appear.”

The campus mail room has been scanning incoming mail for suspicious letters since Monday. But officials believe the envelopes in question arrived during the winter break and were distributed Monday, the first day of the new quarter, Vasich said.

In an alert issued Tuesday, campus police urged anyone who receives a letter from someone in Idaho they do not know to immediately call 911 or the UC Irvine Police Department at (949) 824-5223. All students and employees were provided plastic bags, which they can use to return any other suspicious letters, the alert said.

Vasich said there had been speculation the letters were a prank related to the upcoming release of a movie called “Black Death.” Set during the first outbreak of the bubonic plague in England, the movie is scheduled for a Feb. 26 release in Britain, according to the Internet Movie Database.

But Vasich said authorities have not identified a motive for the letters. The UC Irvine Police Department is leading the investigation, which also involves the Orange County Fire Authority, the Orange County Department of Public Health, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Service.

-- Alexandra Zavis

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