Scientist in Miami airport scare has plague-shipping conviction

MIAMI — A suspicious item that triggered a scare at Miami International Airport late Thursday was actually an empty metal canister in the luggage of a science professor, federal authorities told The Miami Herald.

The professor, identified by sources as Thomas C. Butler, was convicted in 2003 on several federal charges related to shipping vials of plague bacteria. He was convicted for the improper shipment of plague samples to Tanzania.

His past history raised a red flag after the item, which looked like a metal pipe bomb, was spotted in his luggage. He was speaking with authorities Friday morning, but prosecutors declined to file charges against the former Texas Tech University professor.

The professor started his journey in Saudi Arabia, traveled through London, then to Miami, with plans to fly to Puerto Rico and on to the Dominican Republic, sources said.

He told authorities he obtained the container in England and was bringing it to the United States for his research.

The incident unfolded about 9 p.m. Thursday. Butler, after getting off the flight from London, had to go through customs before getting on the Puerto Rico leg of the trip.

At that point, TSA screeners spotted the canister in his luggage. The Miami-Dade police bomb squad was called and removed the item, which was taken for testing. All of the lab tests proved to be negative, according to the FBI.

Authorities said the incident is a reminder in the post-Sept. 11 era that passengers must be responsible about the kinds of items they bring on flights and that federal security officers must constantly be on their toes for any potential terrorist threat.

The incident illustrated that the federal security system at MIA worked as TSA screeners spotted an item that could be suspicious and immediately contacted the FBI and its counterterrorism unit.

“We practice for this, we have exercises for this,” said FBI Special Agent Michael Leverock. “It absolutely worked.”

TSA, FBI, Miami-Dade police and Fire-Rescue, and ICE Homeland Security special agents aided in the investigation.

Cmdr. Nancy Perez, a Miami-Dade police spokeswoman, said, “This is a perfect example to the community that whether it turns out that it’s nothing, we need the community to continue to be alert.”

The scare prompted the evacuation of Concourses E, F, G and H Thursday night.

Three inbound flights were diverted to the two concourses that remained open.

Airport operations had returned to normal by about 4 a.m. today.

Greg Chin, an airport spokesman, said because of the time of night, only about 100 to 150 people had to be evacuated from the concourses.

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