Froth, fear, and fury
Cartoon devices spur antiterror sweeps; two men are arrested
By Suzanne Smalley and Raja Mishra, Globe Staff | February 1, 2007
Enraged city and state officials yesterday readied a legal assault against those responsible for a guerrilla marketing campaign that dotted the city with small battery-powered light screens, setting off fears of terrorism and shutting down major roadways and subway lines for parts of the day.
Authorities last night were retrieving the 38 magnetic signs depicting cartoon characters under bridges, on storefronts, and outside Fenway Park, among other locations, that were installed as part of a Turner Broadcasting System marketing blitz for a Cartoon Network television show.
For much of the day, police treated the signs, which measure about 1 by 1 1/2 feet and feature protruding wires on one side, as potentially dangerous. But their investigation shifted when they happened to move one of the signs into a darker area. The sudden lack of sunlight prompted the lights forming the character's image to brighten into color. Sometime between 2 and 3 p.m., according to a public safety official, a Boston police analyst recognized the image as a cartoon character, and police concluded it was likely a publicity stunt.
Turner Broadcasting System Inc. apologized about 4:30 p.m. for the campaign, which included cartoon characters making an obscene gesture.
"We really deeply regret that it was horribly misinterpreted to be a public danger, when all it was intended to do was to draw attention to a late-night television show," said Phil Kent, chairman and chief executive of the network, based in Atlanta. "This is not the kind of publicity we would ever seek."
The ordeal began around 8 a.m. when an MBTA worker spotted one of the devices affixed to an Interstate 93 ramp near Sullivan Square in Charlestown, forcing the shutdown of the northbound side of the Interstate and tying up traffic for hours. The State Police bomb squad blew the object apart with a water cannon at about 10 a.m. Then, in quick sequence just after noon, reports of similarly suspicious devices flooded police lines, sending anti terrorism forces to over a dozen locations in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.
Last night, in Arlington, police arrested Peter Berdovsky , 27, an artist originally from Belarus, who told the Globe earlier in the day that he installed the signs for an ad firm hired by Turner Broadcasting. Berdovsky, who described himself as " a little kind of freaked out," faces up to five years in prison on charges of placing a hoax device in a way that causes panic and disorderly conduct.
Attorney General Martha Coakley's office announced late last night that a second suspect, Sean Stevens, 28, of Charlestown, had been arrested in the case about 11:30 p.m. Like Berdovsky, Stevens was charged with placing a hoax device and disorderly conduct. Both suspects are scheduled to be arraigned at 9 a.m. today in Charlestown District Court, said Coakley's office.
Turner Broadcasting's apology did little to assuage outraged officials in the three cities, where lawyers are preparing legal efforts to recoup the cost of the police mobilization.
The deployment of scores of state, federal, and Boston police specialists, from bomb experts to terrorism analysts, exceeded $500,000, according to Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.
Asked last night if Turner Broadcasting would reimburse the state and cities, Kent said, "We're certainly going to look at all the facts. We're a very responsible company and we try to do the right thing."
While police responded to the episode with swiftness and gravity, some Bostonians, especially younger adults, were amused by the spectacle and suggested authorities overreacted. But Coakley said the placement of the devices, on key infrastructure points, like highway ramps and under bridges, alarmed even seasoned investigators.
"For those who responded to it, professionals, it had a very sinister appearance," Coakley said. "It had a battery behind it and wires."
Turner Broadcasting acknowledged that it never sought approval or alerted authorities that it would put up the signs. The company hired by Turner for the campaign, New York-based Interference Inc., declined comment.
The signs, installed about two weeks ago, were part of a 10-city marketing campaign for the cartoon "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." They had not set off terrorism fears in New York, Los Angeles, or any of the other locations, and it was not clear whether they had been widely noticed in those cities. Yesterday Turner Broadcasting scrambled to alert police in the other cities to their presence.
Kent described a nerve-wracking sequence of events yesterday afternoon, when he received a call from one of the company's executives saying, "Turn on CNN." The news network was at the time featuring news of the bomb scares in Boston.
The company, realizing its campaign was probably the cause, went into damage control.
A visibly angry Menino said he would ask the Federal Communications Commission to yank TBS's broadcasting license for what he called "an outrageous act to gain publicity for their product."
The "Aqua Teen" program, launched seven years ago, chronicles the adventures of a talking box of French fries and his irreverent fast food pals. The images on the signs, including the characters with grimacing faces making the obscene gesture, are tiny video game characters that make cameos on the show, which airs during the Cartoon Network's late night programming block called "Adult Swim."
Menino and others said the campaign was especially reckless given Boston's sensitivity to terrorism threats, after planes that left Logan Airport on Sept. 11, 2001, were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center.
Menino was also upset, he said, because top executives at Turner Broadcasting did not contact him directly to discuss what happened. The mayor said he did not receive a call from the company until about 9 p.m., and it was from a low-ranking press official.
"Give me a break. . . . It's all about corporate greed," Menino said, adding that he wanted make sure "not the guy we arrested today pays, but also the people in the boardroom have some obligation also on this issue."
But others were relishing the story, which rocketed around the Internet. Computer users e-mailed their friends links to video on YouTube that showed young people using telescopic poles to place the magnetic devices on recognizably Boston locations, as electronic music played in the background. Others went to eBay, where someone was already selling one of the magnetic devices, which was apparently removed from a South Boston location, with a minimum bid of $5,000.
Local residents expressed a range of reactions. April James , 32, said she saw one of the devices in a sandy area under the Longfellow Bridge about three weeks ago. "I kicked it first, then I picked it up," said James, a hairdresser who says she walks and jogs over the bridge nearly everyday. "It looked like a bomb. I picked it up, pulled the tape off it, and there were batteries, two on the top and three on the bottom."
James said she was not frightened by the device, which she said she returned to its spot near the sidewalk in front of the bridge, before continuing her walk.
David Abel, Maria Cramer, Mac Daniel, John R. Ellement, Michael Levenson, Andrew C. Ryan, Maria Sacchetti, Donovan Slack, and Lisa Wangsness of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents April Simpson and Michael Naughton contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.
jeudi, février 01, 2007
i survived the mooninites
As Leo said: "not only is Boston giving ridiculous publicity to a show I love — they're looking like total idiots!"