A February incident in which noxious fumes were released in the region’s largest shopping mall is being investigated by the FBI as a possible incident of domestic terrorism.
The fumes prompted the evacuation of NorthTown Mall in February, and at least 36 people sought medical care.
The case was forwarded to the FBI’s Inland Northwest Joint Terrorism Task Force by Spokane police, police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer DeRuwe said. Officials wouldn’t say specifically why they believe terrorism might have been involved.
Shoppers were evacuated Feb. 11 after some suffered symptoms consistent with being exposed to pepper spray or Mace, DeRuwe said. Reactions included coughing, watery eyes and noses, and scratchy throats.
No one suffered long term health damage, DeRuwe said.
Norman C. Brown, the FBI task force supervisor, said the incident “could be anything from a prank to an intentional act against a targeted store.”
Another possible objective may have been to test the emergency-response system, Brown said.
“If these individuals were sophisticated, it would give them an idea of the type of response and a time frame in which they can operate safely.”
NorthTown Mall marketing director Leslea Warnick declined to comment.
A surveillance video showed a man running from JC Penney inside the mall, where the incident was centered, DeRuwe said. However, they do not know who the man is or if he was involved, she said.
“We have no suspects at this time,” Brown said.
The Inland Northwest Joint Terrorism Task Force investigates cases in Eastern Washington and northern Idaho, including domestic and international terrorism. The task force is made up of federal, state and local law enforcement, and is funded through the FBI’s budget.
Domestic terrorists are U.S. residents “who commit acts of terrorism on our own soil,” Brown said.
When two Hummers were damaged in 2005 at the George Gee Auto Dealership in Liberty Lake, the joint terrorism task force determined it was domestic terrorism. The case is different from the NorthTown Mall incident because “an individual claiming to be affiliated with the Environmental Liberation Front claimed responsibility,” Brown said.