Discovery of a suspicious white powder in a ballot-return envelope forced evacuation of the Okanogan County Courthouse last week. The substance was discovered on Wednesday (Aug. 2) as Auditor’s Office staff were processing ballots from Tuesday’s primary election. The courthouse was closed for three days until it could be thoroughly cleaned.
Thirteen employees in the Auditor’s Office with potential exposure were decontaminated before being released to go home, according to an emergency alert from Okanogan County. The employee who’d opened the envelope was put in protective clothing to prevent the substance from contaminating health care workers and taken by ambulance to Mid-Valley Hospital in Omak for evaluation.
All employees were fine, although it was “pretty traumatic” for the individual who had to go to the hospital, Okanogan County Sheriff Chief Criminal Deputy Rick Balam told the Methow Valley News.
Okanogan County sheriff’s deputies, the Okanogan Fire Department, and local Washington State Patrol officers also responded. The courthouse was secured and courthouse security and law enforcement remained on scene.
The envelope appeared to have been mailed, not deposited in a ballot drop-box, Balam said.
The incident is under investigation by the FBI and the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office. Because the powder was found at about 4 p.m. Wednesday, the FBI and a SWAT team from the Washington State Patrol arrived on Thursday to investigate and recover evidence, Balam said.
The evidence was transported by the FBI to the Washington State Public Health Laboratory in Shoreline for analysis. At about 1 a.m. Friday morning, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office was notified that the substance was negative for any bioterrorism agents or toxins. Additional analysis is being done to identify the substance, Balam said.
In addition to the auditor, the courthouse houses the offices of the treasurer, county clerk, assessor, and Superior and District courts. All courthouse business was shut down last week, although Superior and Juvenile court proceedings were able to go forward in another location, Balam said. All District Court proceedings had to be rescheduled.
The courthouse has been thoroughly cleaned and all offices reopened for business on Monday (Aug. 7). The Okanogan County commissioners signed a resolution on Tuesday authorizing administrative leave during the emergency courthouse closure. County offices in other buildings weren’t affected.
Investigations by the Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service are ongoing. They don’t know if the powder was placed in the envelope intentionally or if it was an accident, but they have to treat it as if it could be harmful, Balam said. There is no estimate for when the investigations will be completed.
A suspicious letter was received on Monday (July 31) by King County Elections as they were processing primary ballots. The letter, which was regular mail, not a ballot, was turned over to the Postal Inspection Service, which performed an analysis that detected trace amounts of fentanyl, according to Deputy Director of External Affairs Derrick Nunnally with the Washington Office of the Secretary of State.
While both incidents are still under investigation, investigators determined there is no connection between the two incidents, Balam said.