SAN FRANCISCO - A California man suspected of mailing more than 120 hoax anthrax letters to media outlets was interviewed previously by the FBI after one similar mailing in 2007, but he was not charged.
Marc M. Keyser, 66, was interviewed by the FBI in January 2007 for allegedly sending a package containing a small aerosol can labeled "Anthrax," along with a compact disc, to the Sacramento News and Review newspaper, according a criminal complaint filed Thursday in federal court.
Keyser told agents then that he was using the mailing as a publicity stunt for a novel he had penned, and "to model what would happen if terrorist were to use anthrax ... to show the amount of anthrax a terrorist might spray into the air conditioning system in a shopping mall." The can did not contain anthrax.
Agents warned Keyser that he violated federal law and could be prosecuted, but they didn't arrest him. Agent Filip Colfescu said in the complaint that Keyser at the time apologized for the hoax "and told agents they should not worry, that he would not be doing it again."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, who is prosecuting the current case, said Keyser was not charged in 2007 because "it was a very much more limited conduct at that point. It was one instance. He was admonished."
Keyser was arrested without incident at his home in Sacramento on Wednesday and is being charged with three counts of sending hoax anthrax threats by mail. At least some of the packages had Keyser's return address on them, and agents found 11 more packets in Keyser's car, according to the complaint.
None of the packets has so far tested positive for hazardous material, the agency said.
Keyser appeared briefly in U.S. District Court Thursday, and the judge assigned public defender Rachelle Barbour to his case.
Barbour declined to comment outside the courtroom. Keyser is being held in a county jail until a judge rules on whether he can be released on bail. He did not enter a plea and is due back in court Friday.
The investigation began after The Atlantic magazine received a letter Monday.
Media outlets in North Carolina, California and Washington state also have received the letters, as has Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., and a Sacramento McDonald's. Offices were briefly evacuated in some cases.
On Thursday, more newspapers reported receiving the packages, including the San Jose Mercury News, Orange County Register, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, the Boston Herald and The Christian Science Monitor.
So did The Courier-Journal of Louisville, where hazardous-material experts "were able to test the substance and it tested positive for sugar," said Kathy Harrison, spokeswoman for the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness.
Given the number of packages sent, the number of charges could be increased. Each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, Wagner said.
Keyser could also face tens of thousands of dollars in restitution payments to emergency service providers around the nation, Wagner said.
Anthrax mailed to congressional offices and others in 2001 killed five people and sickened 17.
The packages linked to Keyser contained a sugar packet labeled "Anthrax Sample" along with a biohazard symbol, the FBI said in a news release. The CD was titled "Anthrax: Shock & Awe Terror," which Keyser said was the title of his new book.
FBI agent Steve Dupre said more of Keyser's mailings will probably be received over the next few days. Recipients should contact their local FBI office, he said.
Keyser was investigated in 1998 by the Postal Service for mail fraud in regards to thousands of fake collections letters that were sent out by a nonprofit organization started by Keyser, the AIDS Action League. A postal inspector determined that Keyser's scheme didn't violate federal law because he wasn't trying to profit from it.
Records show that state and federal tax collectors had placed liens against the AIDS Action League in 1998 and 2001. They also show a number of other corporations and organizations listed at Keyser's previous address, including Business Terror Watch, Homeland Defense and World AIDS Organization.
In 2004, Keyser rankled local law enforcers when he went door to door in the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, asking residents for donations to increase terrorism security outside a local police station. The Elk Grove Police Department issued a scam alert on its Web site and said there was no credibility to Keyser's claims.