Investigation ongoing following bomb threats, car fire on Tufts Medford/Somerville campus

Firefighters extinguish a car fire in the parking lot of the Tufts University Health Service on Monday, May 9, 2016. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

At approximately 4:30 a.m. a vehicle outside of Health Service near 124 Professors Row caught fire and a note indicating bomb threats to Cabot Hall, Braker Hall, Cohen Auditorium and Tisch Library was discovered. All affected buildings have since been cleared by law enforcement, and there is an ongoing criminal investigation.

“An investigation is underway into the facts and circumstances of the car fire and threats, including whether they are related,” University President Anthony Monaco told the Tufts community in a 5:19 p.m. email. “We are already working to ensure that campus activities and events between now and the end of the academic year are secure for all participants.”

Staff on the Medford/Somerville campus were asked to return home, although essential employees — including facilities and dining services staff — will remain on campus, according to the email. Morning, noon and early afternoon exams for Arts, Sciences and Engineering (AS&E) and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy students have been postponed, but AS&E exams scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight will “go on as planned.”

Monaco explained in the community email that the university is aware that the “need to cancel or postpone normal campus activities was especially disruptive for faculty and students given the schedule of final examinations,” and that the AS&E and Fletcher schools will be in touch with individual communities about academic issues.

Tisch Library and Edwin Ginn Library were reopened for students after temporary closures, and dining facilities on campus remained open, according to a university email update at 1:54 p.m. In addition, the Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center was reopened at around 3 p.m.

The fire in the car outside the Health Service building, which has since been characterized as “suspected arson,” was extinguished early this morning by the Somerville Fire Department. Since then, over a dozen law enforcement agencies are working to determine the cause of the fire and to find more information on the bomb threats, according to Mary Jeka, senior vice president of university relations and general counsel.

“There will be an enhanced police presence on campus for the remainder of the day,” a 12:35 p.m. community-wide email read.

Law enforcement agencies on campus include the Tufts University Police Department (TUPD), Somerville Police Department, Department of Homeland Security, the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, Boston Police Department, Medford Police Department, Lowell Police Department, as well as other local and state police and fire departments.

In addition to these agencies, targeted buildings were in the process of being investigated by bomb-sniffing dogs, Jeka said at a noon press conference. An individual from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was seen near Health Service, and a person with an explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) vest accompanied by a dog was also seen exiting Cohen.

The university first released a timely warning email to the community at 6:56 a.m. confirming the bomb threats and indicating that the fire has been extinguished.

“At this time Cabot Hall, Breaker Hall [sic], Cohen Hall, Health Services, and the Tisch Library and the Tisch Sports Complex are secured until further notice,” the email stated. “Please stay clear of these areas until further notice.”

Later in the day, a 9:33 a.m. email update sent from the Tufts Alert System reported that law enforcement was working to clear targeted buildings on campus.

“Multiple law enforcement agencies are actively working to clear the affected buildings and will reopen them once it is safe to do so,” the email read. “Students are asked to remain in their residences this morning until further notice.”

Jeka said during the press conference that the university has “been in touch with parents to provide them with the same information we have given to the faculty, staff and student community.”

Charlie Breen, deputy chief from the Somerville Fire Department, said that the fire was suspicious by nature, and that an investigative unit is on the scene to “rule things out.”

The fire had been preceded by a series of loud bangs in the area, according to Daily photographer Evan Sayles, who said that at its height, the fire had shot around 10 feet into the air.

The car that caught fire belonged to Michelle Bowdler, senior director of health and wellness service at Health Service, according to a Health Service staff member. Bowdler’s car had been left parked outside the building for the weekend, a May 9 Boston Herald article stated.

The bomb threat note taped at the entrance of Health Service said that bombs had been placed at Cabot, Braker, Cohen and the Tisch basement, and threatened future bomb placements if the note was not taken seriously. The letter also tied the car that caught on fire to the bomb threats, and alluded to ongoing tensions surrounding the university and its contracted janitors.

Support for the janitors in upcoming contract negotiations with Tufts has been a major cause for the Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC), a student group dedicated to creating “fair and safe conditions for Tufts workers.” TLC has been visible in their support for university janitors, including protesting recently at Jumbo Days as well as conducting a week-long hunger strike and protests at the Commencement ceremony last spring. The note did not specifically name the Tufts Labor Coalition.

Jeka explained that the threats appear to “be random,” but that it is unconfirmed at this time who is responsible for the threats.

“At this juncture, the note did make some reference to janitors on campus,” she said. “Law enforcement is investigating…if it is a member of the student groups or any outside organization.”

Jeka added that prior to the events this morning, TUPD had received information yesterday from a “confidential source” that there would be a disruption on campus, although she did not comment on the affiliation of the source or the nature of the disruption.

TLC posted a press release on its Facebook page earlier today saying that the group “had no role in, and condemns these acts of violence.”

TLC member Sofia Adams said that the group has “absolutely nothing” to do with either the bomb threat or the fire.

“Often people think TLC has too radical of protesting methods, so maybe someone saw this as an opportunity to make more people afraid and resentful of TLC,” Adams, a senior, said.

The TLC press release added that the actions this morning “are completely contrary to the values of Tufts Labor Coalition.”

Tufts Labor Coalition would never act in a way that would bring danger to any member of the Tufts community: workers, students, faculty and staff, or administrators,” the release read. “We are thankful for the first responders working to maintain the safety of our community and the essential employees remaining on campus.”

The union that represents janitorial staff at Tufts, 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU) District 615, also sent out a press release that “strongly condemns the violent actions at Tufts University this morning.”

“The staff and membership of SEIU 32BJ District 615 does not condone any sort of violence, destruction of property, or harm to persons,” the release read. “The Union was shocked and dismayed to learn of the car fire and bomb threat at Tufts this morning. We pledge our full assistance with any official investigation, in whatever way we can help.”

Tufts’ Counseling and Mental Health Service (CMHS) is open for students, and the university has a counselor, chaplain and administrator on-call through the TUPD non-emergency number, 617-627-3030. Students concerned about exams following this morning’s events can contact their instructors, seek support from the CMHS, their private physician or their academic dean, according to the afternoon announcement email. Fletcher students with concerns about exams should contact the Registrar’s office or their academic dean.

Anyone with information about this morning’s events is encouraged to call the State Fire Marshal’s Arson Hotline at 1-800-682-9229 for rewards of up to $5,000.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.


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