FBI: Strip-Or-Get-Bombed Threat Spreads
15 Stores Targeted In 11 States In Past Week, Police Say


PHOENIX -- A telephone caller making a bomb threat to a Hutchinson, Kan., grocery store kept more than 100 people hostage, demanding they disrobe and that the store wire money to his bank account.

Tuesday's incident may be part of a broader scam targeting other businesses around the country, the FBI said. Similar bomb threats are under investigation at more than 15 stores in at least 11 states -- all in the past week, authorities said.

FBI spokesman Rich Kolko said the threat appears to be related to a plot in recent days focusing on banks and stores in places like Detroit, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia and Newport, R.I.

"At this point, there's enough similarities that we think it's potentially one person or one group," Kolko said.

Police in Kansas safely led the 46 employees and 64 customers, some of whom had taken off their clothes, out of a Dillons grocery store after about 90 minutes.

Authorities said the caller appeared to have visual access to the store, although officials were investigating whether the caller was out of state and may have hacked into the store's security system.

"If they can access the Internet, they can get to anything," Hutchinson Police Chief Dick Heitschmidt said. "Anyone in the whole world could have access, if that's what really happened."

On Wednesday, two other stores in Hutchinson also received bomb threats, said police Lt. Steven Nelson.

In Arizona, a bomb threat led to the evacuation of a Prescott Safeway on Tuesday.

A caller with an accent demanded $2,850, according to police and city spokesman Kim Kapin.

"The maximum that Western Union can send through its service is $3,000," Kapin said. Wiring money also includes a $150 service charge, Kapin added. "This individual was obviously aware of that."

Initially, the caller led employees to believe he was observing them.

"After a while, it sounded like he was just taking a shot in the dark at what they might be doing, or what they looked like or how they were reacting to his call," Prescott police Lt. Ken Morley said.

Sherry Johnson, a spokeswoman for Englewood, Colo.-based Western Union, said the company was working with the FBI and U.S. Secret Service to trace the money sent through the service.

It was also telling its agents to be on the lookout for the extortion plot.

"This is an ongoing law enforcement investigation," Johnson said.

A bomb threat at a supermarket in Millinocket, Maine, on Wednesday was tied to the scam. Authorities there said a caller threatened to detonate a bomb inside the store unless money was wired to a bank account. Click here to read about the incident.

An unidentified man called a Newport Wal-Mart on Tuesday morning, saying he had a bomb and would harm employees. He also demanded that workers transfer $10,000 to an account, said Newport Police Sgt. James Quinn. The store wired the money, Quinn said.

FBI Looks For Overseas Connection

The FBI was looking into whether the calls to the banks and stores were being placed from overseas and was compiling reports from local police departments to probe for similarities between the cases, Kolko said Wednesday.

"At this point, there's enough similarities that we think it's potentially one person or one group," Kolko said from Washington.

Police in Virginia said a similar threat was made at a store there on Tuesday. In that case, no money was sent and no bomb was found.

In Newport, the caller placed three separate calls to the store, Quinn said. An employee reported the bomb threat to police at 6:52 a.m., minutes before the store's scheduled opening.

Roughly 25 employees who were inside at the time were evacuated as a police SWAT team spent hours sweeping the building and bomb-sniffing dogs searched around cars in the parking lot. Neither the suspect nor any explosive device was found in the store, and no one was injured.

Quinn said police have identified the account where the money was wired, but he would not say where it was held. He said the caller used a land line from out of state, but would not say from where. No arrests have been made.

A similar call was made to a bank inside a Wal-Mart store in western Virginia late Tuesday morning, police said. An employee at a bank branch inside a Wal-Mart store in Salem was told that a bomb would explode unless an undisclosed amount of money was sent via Western Union. The store was evacuated and later reopened after no bombs were found, police said.

Another bomb threat was called in a few minutes later to a bank inside a store in Virginia's Pulaski County. That store was also evacuated and no bombs were found.

No arrests have been made in either of the Virginia incidents.

The store in Newport does not have a bank branch inside, but offers a money transfer service similar to Western Union, police said.

College Campuses Get Bomb Threats

Separately, the FBI is looking into bomb threats on college campuses, including three in Ohio -- the University of Akron, Kenyon College and a community college in Lorain County, Ohio.

No explosive devices have been found. Law enforcement officials said there was no evidence at this time linking the college bomb threats with those at grocery and discount stores.

Kenyon, in Gambier in central Ohio, received six separate bomb threats in a general admissions e-mail account between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. Wednesday, college spokesman Shawn Presley said.

Local and federal authorities determined the threats to be a hoax and the school was not evacuated as officials swept buildings searching for the bomb, he said.

The University of Akron closed classrooms, labs and offices in its Auburn Science and Engineering building on Wednesday, after a secretary in a dean's office received an anonymous e-mail that included a bomb threat.