During much of 1995, I was manning the fort at Peter Neufeld’s one-man law office. Peter himself was in Los Angeles most of the time, as part of the O.J. Simpson defense team.
Part of my job was answering the high frequency of telephone calls, which I did with my right hand holding a pen and scribbling on our rapidly diminishing phone message pad.
The calls swung wildly between people who, unlike me, seemed to be spending much of their days watching the trial on TV and had much to say, including offering clues about the evidence; and angry, sometimes vicious voices condemning Peter for defending O.J.
I really should have imposed upon myself a stoic response, should have turned myself into an automatic message machine. But no. I was appalled at people’s ignorance of our judicial system and what the mandate to defend meant. So my responses were often sharp.
Once, a critic who did not give his name but spoke with an Eastern European accent, spat out something about the shame of a Jew like Peter representing a black murderer. I snapped that since he clearly did not understand or like our criminal defense system or appreciate our Constitution, he should consider moving to another country the legal system of which would be more to his liking.
Yeah, I got testy. I have a defense soul.
There were anonymous letters, several so racist, so vile I sealed them into plastic bags, just in the very bad case I’d need to hand them over to NYPD for fingerprint testing. (I still have them.)
Then there came a phone call with a direct death threat, so ugly it still makes me shudder. After I reported the threat to the police, I had the telephone company put a trap on our phone. (Most people call it a “tap;” the correct word is “trap”.) A trap lasts only for a month. The caller waited that full month and then threatened death again. Another trap for a month.
So that was the atmosphere at our office when Kate, our delightful receptionist, buzzed me to say a package had just come for Peter. I walked out to her desk and found her palpating a padded 9×12 envelope with comic brio and saying, “Maybe it’s a bomb!”
I said, “Stop feeling it up!” and grabbed it, brought it back to my desk and inspected it. It was irregularly lumpy. There was a return address, a name, a post office box number and a town in Idaho.
Ominous. At the time, Idaho was a well-known haven for crazy, armed survivalists living in bunkers with tons of canned food and heavy weapons. (Indeed, I believe post-trial Mark Fuhrman moved to Idaho.)
Without much of an internet back then, I did some primitive investigation: I tried to get a phone number for the man whose name was on the package. The number was unlisted.
Now look. I was bred with a dark sense of humor (Russian Trotskyist Jews) and have not a shred of paranoia in my genes. I am unlikely ever to get hysterically imaginative over lumpy packages. But, in combination with those phone calls, I contemplated the package and thought, “Gee, you know, just in the most remote case…”
Sometime around then, Peter called. I told him what I was up to. He laughed and said something like, “Have a good time!”
So I put the package on Peter’s desk, closed his door and tried to call the bomb squad directly, just for a minimal consultation. Couldn’t; was told I had to “put the call through the system,” meaning 911.
I was finding this operation somewhat embarrassing, since I seriously doubted there was danger in that package. But I also decided I had to put my actual character aside for a minute and consider the possibilities as if I were a fear-ridden nutcase.
I called 911. For the rest of the afternoon, I hovered around, apologizing to everyone in earshot for creating anxiety and turmoil I myself did not believe in.
After 911, someone from the bomb squad called. I explained the situation (including the O.J. Simpson trial and threats) and was told, “You were right to call.”
After which the bomb squad arrived. Bomb squad officers wear jackets and ties, i.e., they dress much better than any of the lawyers in the office. I escorted them to The Package. As I did my apologies, one reassured me, “No, it’s a suspicious package.”
They evacuated our floor, which meant evacuating everyone from the law firm from which we rented space — who thanked me as they left cheerfully for an early lunch. Except for me; I felt responsible so I strolled around purposelessly.
Later someone told me the bomb squad dog had been there, but I never saw a dog so I think we need to put this rumor into the category of highly specific urban legend.
Eventually, the bomb squad officers came out of Peter’s office. “It’s a photograph,” one told me. Huh? I apologized again, and entered the “bomb” chamber to see what the hell. Stuffing from the package was scattered around the desk and over the floor. The bomb was…an 8×10 photograph of Peter, walking down the exterior stairs of the Los Angeles courthouse, surrounded by a crowd of spectators.
What had made the package lumpy was a padded self-addressed stamped envelope and a pricey indelible marking pen. In a note, the sender wrote he’d taken this picture of Peter, whom he admired greatly, and would deeply appreciate it if, using the marker, Peter would autograph it and return it in the conveniently enclosed envelope.
I’m not going to struggle to remember whether Peter, who came to the office the next day, did sign and return the picture. But I do remember Peter saying, “What’s all this crap all over my office?” and me, responding testily with, “It’s the fucking bomb!”
The NYPD bomb squad was admirable then and more so yesterday, when they had real bombs to deal with.