When I was a kid, this was an exceptionally dangerous time of year. The warmer temperatures would lead to melting snow, and the melting snow would lead to slush, and the slush would lead to the risk of the dreaded slush ball. The slush ball, of course, was like a snowball, except a thousand times more painful and potentially destructive. Whereas a snowball, now matter how firmly packed, is always light and fluffy, the slush ball is a more compact and lethal missile of wet, granular snow, ice shards, and water. The snowball strikes its target with an airy “piff”-like sound. The successfully hurled slush ball, on the other hand, gives off a loud, wet “thwack.” Snowballs can be casually shrugged off. Slush balls, on the other hand, immediately drip down your neck or the front of your shirt, leaving a wet, gritty trail.
In my old neighborhood, on Short Hills Drive in Bath, Ohio, the slush ball expert was a red-headed kid named Kenny Rumbaugh. He was a few years older than we were, and bigger besides. If you were outside on a wet end-of-winter day, you had to keep an eye out for Rumbaugh. If you were careless you could suddenly find him behind you, tossing the slush ball with astonishing accuracy at the collar line of your winter coat and then slapping you on the back to ensure that the slush ball broke apart and the water and ice slid down your back with maximum chilling effect. And the neck shot was actually preferable to the alternative. If you got clobbered in the face with the slush ball, it knocked your glasses off, stung like crazy, and left an obvious red mark.
There was no defense against the slush ball. In the arsenal of childhood weapons, it was the atomic bomb.
Many people have forgotten the deadly letters containing anthrax that came hard on the heels of the 9/11 attacks. At the time, the anthrax attacks made it seem that the United States was going to be the subject of unending terrorist activity, from every quarter. Eventually, though, the letters stopped and the public’s focus shifted to al Qaeda, Afghanistan, and later Iraq.
The FBI, however, pursued the identity of the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks in the eight years since the anthrax attacks occurred. After fits and starts, the FBI’s investigation zeroed in on an Army scientist. The scientist committed suicide in 2008, shortly after learning that the investigators were preparing to charge him. The FBI has now released its final report on the investigation, laying out the case against the scientist. The Washington Post article on the report appears here.
The government’s case is based purely on circumstantial evidence; there is no physical evidence linking the scientist to the crime, no confession, and no eyewitness accounts. Accordingly, some have claimed that the government would not have been able to secure a conviction in court. Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidence seems powerful. The report describes how the scientist was one of the few people who had access to the strain of anthrax found in the letters and the capability to create the spores that were placed in the fatal envelopes, and recounts his erratic personal behavior.
Some crimes are never fully solved; Scotland Yard never determined who was Jack the Ripper. We should all hope that the FBI is correct in their conclusions in this instance, because the alternative is that the actual anthrax terrorist is still out there somewhere, at large and potentially capable of striking again.