The Sad End Of George And Martha

PrintPrintEmailEmailOne summer afternoon not so very long ago, the police department of Holmes Beach, Florida, a village on the Gulf Coast a few miles north of Sarasota, took custody of an insignificant-looking package that immediately caused extreme apprehension around the little white station house on Marina Drive.

The package was about ten inches square and a couple of inches thick—roughly the size and heft of a one-pound box of chocolates. It was wrapped in brown paper and sealed with packing tape, like an ordinary item from the post office, and there was no mark on it—no address, no postage stamps, no statement of contents, not even a manufacturer’s logo.

Given its modest bulk, the package was not intrinsically alarming. There was no reason to suspect it contained anything dangerous, but on the other hand, there was no reason to assume it did not. Events far and near had created a sense of caution among the half-dozen men and women of the Holmes Beach Police Department. As they made their rounds of the sandy lanes and trailer parks of Anna Maria Island, guarding the lives and property of surfers, strollers, and visiting snowbirds from Ontario and Michigan, they thought from time to time about the menace of unknown enemies who deliver death in pill bottles, panel trucks, and ordinary brown-paper packages. Barely fourteen months had passed since the horrendous bombing of the Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City. The notorious Unabomber had mailed lethal offerings to several victims in many parts of the country, and just a few weeks before, down in the town of Plantation, a woman had been killed by the explosion of a harmless-looking bundle delivered to her home. Even in a modest seaside resort like Holmes Beach, muffled in pink oleanders and feathery casuarina trees, one could not simply ignore the disturbing implications of an unidentified parcel that had popped up in the heart of the village, without warning and without explanation.

One of the outnumbered all-year residents of Anna Maria Island, a forty-three-year-old woman named Patricia Comkowycz, had brought the mysterious object to the station. It was quarter to five on a hot and breezy Friday in June, and Mrs. Comkowycz was eager to get home. She parked her white Chevrolet station wagon in the shade of the hibiscus bushes at the foot of the steps behind the station, and her school-age daughter trotted the package inside and laid it on the counter.

“We found this in our car,” the girl said—or words to that effect. The duty officer, Patrolman James Cumston, asked her to have her mom come inside and help him fill out a desk report. He dated it 06/14/96 at 1642 hours and titled it “SUSP I,” suspicious incident.

“I didn’t tell them it was suspicious or I thought it was this or that,” Mrs. Comkowycz said later. “I just told them I’d found it in my car, and that was all.”

To her the package did not necessarily seem dangerous, just out of place. In any case, she said, she’s not the kind of person who pays a lot of attention to radical politics, bombings and shootings, and things like that. She’s a married woman, a mother, with a full-time job as a teacher’s aide at one of the local elementary schools. On her way home that afternoon, driving her daughter and another little girl, she had stopped by the S&S Plaza, a small shopping center on Gulf Drive that houses the dry cleaners and the health food store and the branch post office. She had parked on the side street, just around the corner from the post office, and left the car unlocked and the windows open while she and the girls did a couple of errands. When they got back to the car, there was this package in the back seat, sort of hidden under some newspapers, and her daughter’s friend, getting in, said, “Hey, what’s this?”

When he moved to Florida, Burrous briefly lost track of them and decided they’d better go back.

It happened that the police department was only two minutes away, a couple of blocks north, on the way home. After giving Officer Cumston her name and address and the location where the parcel had materialized, Mrs. Comkowycz drove home and fixed dinner, leaving the mystery in the hands, as she saw it, of the proper authorities.

The proper authorities—Patrolman Cumston and the departmental dispatcher, Greg Gebhardt—notified the chief of police, Jay Romine, and the chief agreed that Mrs. Comkowycz’s package certainly demanded attention. He ordered Gebhardt to take it out to the vacant lot between the station house and the next-door Public Works Department, cordon off the area, and telephone Lt. George Harris at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, over at the county seat in Bradenton. Lieutenant Harris was the head of the sheriff’s hazardous materials squad, known as HAZMAT. He was a bomb expert, and he would know how to deal with the situation.