BOSTON - Boston officials, livid about a publicity campaign that had disrupted the city by stirring fears of terrorism, vowed to prosecute those responsible and seek restitution for the $500,000 cost of the response.
Officials found a slew of blinking electronic signs adorning bridges and other high-profile spots across the city Wednesday, prompting the closing of a highway and part of the Charles River and the deployment of bomb squads.
The 38 signs were part of a promotion for Cartoon Network TV show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," a surreal series about a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball. The network's parent is Turner Broadcasting Systems Inc.
"It is outrageous, in a post 9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme," Mayor Thomas Menino said. "I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred."
The 1-foot tall signs resembled a circuit board, with protruding wires and batteries. Most depicted a boxy, cartoon character giving passersby the finger - a more obvious sight when darkness fell.
Authorities arrested two men who put up the signs. Peter Berdovsky, 27, of Arlington, and Sean Stevens, 28, of Charlestown, were charged Wednesday night with one count of placing a hoax device and one count of disorderly conduct.
State Attorney General Martha Coakley said they were hired to place the devices. Both were to be arraigned Thursday morning.
As soon as Turner realized the Boston problem around 5 p.m., it said, law enforcement officials were told of their locations in 10 cities where it said the devices had been placed for two to three weeks: Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, San Francisco and Philadelphia.
"We apologize to the citizens of Boston that part of a marketing campaign was mistaken for a public danger," said Phil Kent, chairman of Turner, a division of Time Warner Inc.
Kent said the marketing company that placed the signs, Interference Inc., was ordered to remove them immediately.
Interference had no immediate comment. A woman who answered the phone at the New York-based firm's offices Wednesday afternoon said the firm's CEO was out of town and would not be able to comment until Thursday.
Messages seeking additional comment from the Atlanta-based Cartoon Network were left with several publicists.
"Everyone can play a part by holding Turner Broadcasting to account for today's events," Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said.
Authorities are investigating whether Turner or other companies should be criminally charged, Coakley said.
"We're not going to let this go without looking at the further roots of how this happened to cause the panic in this city," Coakley said.
In Seattle and several suburbs, the removal of the signs was low-key. "We haven't had any calls to 911 regarding this," Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb said Wednesday.
Police in Philadelphia said they believed their city had 56 devices. The New York Post reported that police confiscated 41 in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Berdovsky, an artist, told The Boston Globe he was hired by Interference and said he was "kind of freaked out" by the furor.
"I find it kind of ridiculous that they're making these statements on TV that we must not be safe from terrorism, because they were up there for three weeks and no one noticed. It's pretty commonsensical to look at them and say this is a piece of art and installation," he said.
A voice mail box for Berdovsky was full Wednesday night. The Associated Press was unable to find whether Stevens had a lawyer.
The rash of calls around the same time is being investigated, Police Commissioner Edward Davis said.
"There's no indication it came from panicked residents," he said.
"Aqua Teen Hunger Force" is a cartoon with a cultish following that airs as part of a block of programs for adults on the Cartoon Network. A feature length film based on the show is slated for release March 23.