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Faulty fax, mistaken as threat, prompts evacuation of stores

Package heightens fears

ASHLAND -- In a scene reminiscent of the Cartoon Network bomb scare that paralyzed the Boston area in January, police shut down a strip mall yesterday in this small western suburb after employees at a Bank of America branch mistook a botched fax for a bomb threat.

Frustrated shop owners said the branch overreacted to the strange fax, which turned out to be an in-house marketing document sent by the bank's corporate office.

"The women at the bank should have handled it a little better," said Nick Markos, owner of Townhouse Pizza and Roast Beef, who estimated that he had lost $1,000 to $1,200 because of the lunch-hour evacuation. "She blew it all out of proportion, and all of us business owners had to pay for it."

A day-care center with about 30 children and more than a dozen small businesses in Ledgemere Plaza on Eliot Street were evacuated for about three hours after bank branch managers received a fax with images of a crude timer and a hand lighting a bomb, Ashland police Chief Scott Rohmer said. Bank employees told police a suspicious package had arrived around the same time, elevating their fears.

Bank security personnel later determined that a fax machine at the corporate office left off the text alerting employees to Small Business Commitment Week in June, including the words, "The Countdown Begins," above the bomb.

"It was not a communication that was ever meant to be distributed to customers or anyone externally, and the fax machine malfunctioned, so when it came out of the fax machine, it looked suspicious," Bank of America spokesman Ernesto Anguilla said.

Anguilla said that branches across the Northeast received the distorted fax and that while other branches also evacuated, none saw law enforcement response as extensive as in Ashland. He would not say how many branches received the fax or how many had been evacuated.

"In Ashland, the situation was compounded by the fact that we had a suspicious package on the scene, as well," Anguilla said.

Added Rohmer, "I think it was reasonable to assume there was a threat, based on what they saw on the fax."

Rohmer said that town officials may ask Bank of America to reimburse the town for the cost of the response, which included more than a dozen town officers and firefighters, personnel from neighboring towns, a State Police bomb squad, and police dogs. Anguilla would not comment on whether the bank would be willing to pay for the emergency response.

A reimbursement would add to the similarities to the Cartoon Network scare in January. The guerrilla marketing campaign, in which two artists hung 40 battery-powered light screens around Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, shut down major streets and subways as bomb squads rushed to remove the suspicious-looking devices.

Turner Broadcasting System, Cartoon Network's parent company, reimbursed local, state, and federal agencies and governments $1 million for the cost of the response and paid an additional $1 million in goodwill cash.

Dawn Frazier, a Holliston resident and owner of the Paul Albert Salon and Spa in the shopping plaza, said she immediately thought of that scare when she learned why she had to evacuate her busy shop.

"It was very disruptive," she said.

Cristina Valas, owner of The Family Pet Hospital, said it was fortunate that the hospital was not in the middle of a surgery when police ordered the evacuation. They were directed to leave three cats, including one recovering from dental surgery, inside.

"I wouldn't have taken it as a bomb threat, personally," said veterinary technician Amy Tatreau. "However, you have to, I guess, treat things seriously these days."

John C. Drake can be reached at jdrake@globe.com.

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