HELENA — More Montana state lawmakers have reported receiving suspicious letters over the last three days – bringing the total to four so far.
On Monday morning, a spokesperson for legislative Republicans said House Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, received an envelope at a Billings post office. He said Vinton did not open the letter and immediately turned it over to the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office.
Later on Monday, the legislative spokesperson reported authorities had tested the white powder in Vinton's letter and found it was flour.
“I want to sincerely thank the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Department and the Billings Fire Department’s Hazmat Team for their very quick and decisive work on this matter,” Vinton said in a statement. “They handled it professionally and rapidly and I’m relieved to learn the white powder contained in the letter sent to me was nothing harmful.”
Earlier, a letter addressed to House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, was found at the State Capitol in Helena – stored unopened in the leadership offices and turned in to the Montana Highway Patrol.
The first two suspicious letters were reported on Friday. They were sent to Republican Reps. Neil Duram of Eureka and Rhonda Knudsen of Culbertson.
In a statement, Regier said the letters were “a continuation of the threats and hate directed at legislators during the session.”
“We pray and hope that the white powder is benign while we await test results,” he said. “Just as we stood firm during the session, we will not be threatened or distracted now. We are in tumultuous times and House leadership will continue our objective to protect Montanans' freedom and safety no matter what cowardly threats are directed at us.”
The letters all follow the same pattern: plain white envelopes with local return addresses but postmarks from Kansas City, Missouri. They appear very similar to ones received by more than 100 lawmakers and other public officials in Kansas earlier this month. Lawmakers in Tennessee also reported receiving letters with white powder at their offices last week.
So far, it appears all of the powder that’s been tested has been harmless.
Because the letters were sent through the U.S. Mail, the federal government has primary jurisdiction. In a statement shared with MTN, the FBI confirmed it’s investigating.
“Law enforcement and public safety officials are working to determine how many letters were sent, the individual or individuals responsible for the letters, and the motive behind the letters,” they said. “As this is an ongoing matter, we will not be commenting further regarding our steps or methods, but the public can be assured that law enforcement will continue to keep the public’s safety as its top priority. The FBI would also like to remind everyone to exercise care in handling mail, especially from unrecognized senders. If you see something suspicious, please contact law enforcement immediately.”
The Montana Department of Justice says its Division of Criminal Investigation is supporting local law enforcement who have taken custody of the envelopes.
“This appears to be a deliberate attempt to stoke public fear and interrupt our government process,” said DCI Administrator Bryan Lockerby in a statement. “We’re working very closely with the FBI and our local law enforcement to ensure the safety of our elected officials and the public."
The department says the FBI Laboratory and the Montana National Guard’s Civil Support Team will also be able to assist with testing the substances found in the letters.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated with more information about what was contained in the letter sent to Rep. Vinton, as well as a statement from Vinton and one from the FBI.