Local News

Package Sent To Oklahoma Tied To Farmer Involved In Standoff

Posted March 19, 2003 2:47 a.m. EST

— A package sent to the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office may have ties to a North Carolina farmer who drove a tractor into a pond in Washington, D.C.

A hazardous materials team took the package containing documents and a jar labeled "tobacco seeds" from the office Tuesday.

A 48-hour standoff near the National Mall between a disgruntled North Carolina farmer and police ended peacefully Wednesday, when the man surrendered.

Dwight Watson, 50, of Whitakers, N.C., left the tractor he had driven into a pond near Washington's monuments at noon Monday. He backed away with his hands raised and was taken into custody.

Preliminary tests indicate the substances in the jar mailed to Oklahoma were not dangerous.

The documents are thought to relate to Watson.

During the standoff, police said Watson claimed to have explosives. A preliminary search of the tractor and the surrounding area after his surrender turned up no explosives and no weapons.

U.S. Park Police Chief Theresa Chambers said Watson had a permit to demonstrate near the Washington Monument from March 16-22. But the permit did not include the area where he drove his tractor into the pond.

Watson surrendered to a SWAT team composed of FBI agents and park police after negotiating the terms of his surrender with authorities. Chambers did not disclose the conditions.

Watson was protesting government farm policies that he said were forcing him out of his family's tobacco-farming business.

Streets remained closed for blocks during the standoff, snarling traffic for miles and forcing alteration of several bus routes.

A police helicopter kept watch from above, and police tactical teams maneuvered in the area around the tractor.

Watson had promised police negotiators that he would surrender. Authorities pressed him earlier Wednesday to make good on that pledge.

"Come on Dwight," a female police negotiator could be heard pleading over a megaphone. "You said you were coming out. You gave me your word. Come out now."

Washington residents - already jittery about the prospect of war, the possibility of retaliatory attacks and memories of jammed streets from the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon in Virginia - wondered throughout the standoff how one farmer could create so much chaos for commuters.

"What this shows is, one or two people can really throw a metropolitan area into chaos," said Richard Clarke, who recently retired as one of the longest-serving, senior counterterrorism officials in the White House. "I assume that the sniper incident, the anthrax incidents and perhaps the tractor incident are not lost on people who might want to make further mischief in the future."

Many asked how law enforcement could possibly stand up against a terrorist attempting a serious biological or chemical attack.

"It shows there's got to be a more defined way to get in and out of the city," said John Roellke, 43, of Arlington, Va. His usual 15-minute drive took an hour and 45 minutes Tuesday.

Phil Anderson, senior fellow for the International Security Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies, vouched for the way law enforcement was handling the standoff.

"It's disruptive, and there is no easy solution, but there is no better way to protect the public than to establish a safe zone and to assume an explosive device is there," he said. "They want to resolve the issue peacefully, but the key question is how long do you let this go on?"

U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-Lillington, issued the following statement regarding the standoff:

"Thank God this situation has been resolved peacefully," Etheridge said. "Throughout the last 48 hours, my top priority, along with the Park Police, the FBI, other authorities and Mr. Watson's family, has been protecting the life of Mr. Watson and the lives of Washingtonians.

"As a congressman, my greatest responsibility is assisting the people of the 2nd Congressional District, and I have taken very seriously the opportunity to help resolve this situation. I want to especially thank my friend and former Durham Police Chief, Teresa Chambers and her troops, as well as the FBI, for the patience and respect they have shown Mr. Watson.

"While none of us condones the actions or methods of Mr. Watson, those of us who have fought for tobacco farmers and rural communities understand his deep frustration.

"Mr. Watson personifies the growing pain and frustration felt in tobacco country. Tobacco is at the heart of my state and contributed not only to its economy but also to the rise of culture, art and education throughout the years.

"For generations, farmers have invested their blood, sweat and tears in their farms and their crops. But in the last five years, they have seen the value of their crops plummet and their ability to provide for their families nearly devastated. Since 1997, the crop that tobacco farmers are allowed to grow has been cut virtually in half.

"For years, tobacco farmers have been living on a hope and a prayer. Congress needs to pass a tobacco quota buyout because it would allow farmers to recoup some of their investments and prepare for a new future. A buyout could literally make the difference between survival and demise for tobacco farmers and our rural communities."