'Somebody just dropped the ball': Bomb threat response criticized in Louisiana State Police report _lowres

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Emergency vehicles stand by the State Capitol during a bomb scare on May 16.

The Louisiana Legislature’s safety officials failed to follow proper procedures in what turned out to be a confused evacuation of the State Capitol after last week’s bomb threat, according to a Louisiana State Police investigation.

“This common protocol for bomb threats was not followed,” reported the State Police in a document obtained by The Advocate through a public records request.

When the bomb threat came in, both legislative chambers had finished for the day. But some staffers were still at work. The building was emptied for 2½ hours while police looked for the bomb.

The evacuation procedures were blotted out on the document, redacted by State Police lawyers seeking to protect the exact law enforcement response procedures from being known publicly.

“In speaking with the House and Senate offices, it was learned that the State Capitol has an Emergency Evacuation Procedures concerning bomb threats, which include a flow chart detailing the necessary steps should a threat occur,” the heavily redacted State Police Report said.

Senate President John A. Alario Jr., R-Westwego, requested the probe to find out why the Senate staff wasn’t notified about closing down the State Capitol.

“As it turned out, some of our employees were still in the building, and they didn’t realize some incident had taken place,” Alario said in an interview last week. “I think somebody just dropped the ball on following that protocol.”

House Sergeant at Arms Clarence Russ said Wednesday he agreed with Alario that a better notification system is needed after hours. “It’s perfect during the day, but it’s a challenge after hours when a lot of the key people have left,” he said.

Russ wants to hold a meeting next week to talk about the investigation’s findings.

Senate Sergeant at Arms John Keller said he had no comment.

It was a rainy May 16, the 84th anniversary of the State Capitol’s opening. The State Police report says that the Department of Public Safety and Corrections got a call from the Baton Rouge Police Department at 6:17 p.m. saying they had a threat from a caller who said “he was a prophet of God and had a vision that there were bombs being placed in the State Capitol elevator and Hollywood Casino in Baton Rouge.”

The department phoned the State Capitol Operations Center at about 6:20 p.m. and dispatched units to the building. Public safety Lt. Ray Alexander spoke to Russ but couldn’t reach Keller. He made contact with another member of the Senate’s safety team.

The first public notice came from a tweet at 6:27 p.m. by New Orleans Democratic Rep. Helena Moreno, who was still at her desk. “Bomb threat for House Chamber. We’re being evacuated.” And then, “The House had adjourned so only few dozen of us in there. We were shuffled out down the stairs and out the building.”

A few minutes later, a handful of House staffers poured off the elevator, saw Russ and asked him if the bomb threat rumors were true. He said the reports were being taken seriously. Asked if they should evacuate, Russ said they probably should. Many used the evacuation to go home early.

Only about a half-dozen employees — including the Senate’s Chief of Staff Jerry J. Guillot — stood in the rain under umbrellas talking about how they learned of the evacuation — usually from someone who had read a tweet or heard it from someone else.

One of those forgotten was Prairieville Sen. Eddie Lambert, a Republican who is vice chairman of the legislative committee that oversees security at the State Capitol. The Senate had adjourned at 5:25 p.m., and Lambert said he was doing some paperwork, waiting for traffic to clear enough that he could drive to his suburban Baton Rouge home more easily.

A secretary stuck her head in his office door, which is in the basement of the State Capitol, and asked if he knew anything about the bomb threat rumor. He hadn’t. They decided to leave the building, and Lambert said he learned about the incident while stuck in traffic when his wife phoned to report what she had heard from media reports.

A bomb technician arrived about 7:15 p.m. and was met by Russ and Keller and several members of their security staffs. They searched the elevator control rooms on the fourth and 26th floors and the elevator shafts.

A man approached DPS officers on the Capitol grounds and told them he had made the calls. He gave the same information initially recorded by Baton Rouge police. He said his vision revealed that “the bombs were being placed by two bearded men wearing sunglasses.”

Col. Mike Edmonson, superintendent of State Police, said the man had the cellphone that made the call. He was committed to a mental health facility and will not be charged or publicly identified, said Edmonson’s aide, Maj. Doug Cain.

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