By the time the men in moon suits were picking their way through the silk and velvet displays at ABC Carpet & Home last Saturday, staffers reviewing surveillance tapes had already determined the identity of one person behind the in-house anthrax hoax. The video appeared to capture Bharrat Dewansingh, a quiet 31-year-old who worked in bedding, placing a piece of paper by the cash register that read "Anthrax is everywhere."
Dewansingh may have been playing a practical joke, but he's probably not laughing now. He has since been charged with a federal felony under the bioterrorism statute. A few days later, asked about her former co-worker, a young woman at ABC shakes her head. "Everybody's upset," she says. "He's a nice guy." An older woman standing at the cash register frowns. "He's not a nice guy," she intones. The younger woman looks uncertain, then amends her statement: "He's not a nice guy."
Nice, not nice, crazy, dumb as a post -- precisely what kind of people are behind the slew of false alarms that have been overwhelming police departments? Nationwide, the FBI has fielded more than 2,000 calls about suspicious substances, and as anyone who's sweated it out recently on a stalled subway knows, the city's getting its fair share.
While some cases can be chalked up to paranoid New Yorkers seeing their doom in a powdered doughnut, others are the work of pranksters clearly overestimating their comic potential. Those who go for the laughs -- and end up in handcuffs -- are usually first-time offenders; they fall into a category one psychologist characterizes as non-frontal.
"The frontal lobe is the place where we temper our judgment with reason," says Jennifer Taylor, a clinical psychologist at McLean Hospital outside Boston. "They don't inhibit their impulses -- if you ask them why they did it, they usually say, I don't know. I thought it would be funny. They couldn't play out in their minds the scenario that would follow."
In some instances, perpetrators set up a situation so they can act heroic, or merely get attention, which may have been what motivated Dewansingh. But not surprisingly, a large number of hoaxers have bona fide mental illnesses. Such is the case of Robert Henderson, a man in West Milford, New Jersey, who allegedly mailed loose Parmesan to a friend in an envelope with the return address "Mohamed, Tonnele Avenue, Jersey City" -- the same street where two people recently arrested in Texas with box cutters live. "He's got a bit of a psych history," says attorney Stacy Biancamano, who represented Henderson briefly (he's been charged with obstructing the mails). "He's on medication. But he's harmless."
Not necessarily, counters Dr. Harvey Schlossberg, former director of psychological services for the New York Police Department. Schlossberg argues that the people who pull tasteless pranks on their friends are on a continuum of nuttiness with the people who call in bomb threats to subway officials: What they have in common is the thrill of "having power over someone else," he says. "The danger is that as they get desensitized to the frightened reactions they elicit, they keep wanting bigger and bigger thrills. Eventually, they might really try something."
That said, it's hard to believe that Stephen Evers, a store manager at the Valley Supreme supermarket in Pine Bush, New York, poses a serious menace to society. After putting some baby powder in his friend's paycheck, the 39-year-old thought he'd be nearby to share a good laugh when he opened it. Instead, the friend went straight to the bank, which alerted authorities and closed for the day. "I don't think we have to look so deeply at whether or not the individual has some kind of mental illness," says his attorney, Darren Epstein. "We just need to look at ourselves -- some of us make bad jokes when we're under stress, that's how we handle it. You make a bad joke, you make a bad joke. But that doesn't mean it's a criminal act."