September 12, 2002 at 6:34 PM EST - Updated August 2 at 5:13 AM
By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Powder used in a nail gun alerted dogs trained to detect bombs, leading to the evacuation of a state office tower, police said Thursday.
Two dogs detected traces of nitrates, which can be used to make bombs, in a commercial van parked outside the 41-story James A. Rhodes State Office Tower on Wednesday, said Lt. Gary Lewis of the State Highway Patrol.
The downtown building, which houses about 4,000 state workers and agencies including the Ohio Supreme Court, was evacuated for about two hours. No bomb was found.
The company that owned the van often uses .22-caliber nail guns with cartridges containing smokeless nitrate powder, Lewis said. Dogs detected the powder itself; no nail gun was found in the van, he said.
The van driver was taken into custody making a comment about planting a bomb. His lawyer told a judge Thursday that the man was joking and knows what he did was wrong.
The driver, Oscar Sesmas, 35, had told an employee on the 28th floor, "I'm here to hide a bomb," the worker said.
The evacuation was ordered hours after a state service was held on the Statehouse lawn, across the street from the tower, to honor the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Sesmas was charged with inducing panic. He appeared Thursday in Franklin County Municipal Court, where Judge Charles Schneider set bond at $100,000. No plea was entered, which is common in such hearings.
Sesmas' court-appointed lawyer, Emily Hurt, said Sesmas later apologized to the employee, Diana L. Campbell, 64, a health-benefits worker.
"It was not his wish to cause her or anyone else any alarm," Hurt said.
Hurt told Schneider that police denied Sesmas access to a lawyer or interpreter. Lewis denied that, saying Sesmas didn't ask for either after being read his rights and cooperated with police, speaking in English.
Campbell said she approached Sesmas because he was in an area rarely used by visitors.
"I couldn't tell if he acted like he was lost -- he basically looked very out of place," she said Thursday.
After mentioning a bomb, as Campbell stared at him, Sesmas said in a stuttering voice, "'I'm here to hang some vinyl blinds,'" she said. He walked away and returned with a work cart containing window blinds and tools.
But Campbell didn't feel right about the situation and got a supervisor, who talked briefly with Sesmas. A few minutes later, Sesmas returned to her desk.
"He said, 'I'm sorry, that was a stupid thing to do, I didn't mean to scare you,'" Campbell said. "I said, 'Yes, there's a lot of lives at stake here.'"
Troopers said Sesmas told them he was an illegal immigrant from Mexico, and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service was checking his status. Hurt said Sesmas has five children and has lived in Columbus for three years.
The evacuation was ordered at 2 p.m. and completed within about half an hour.
Patrol Lt. Col. Paul McClellan said the scent was detected three times by one dog and once by another. Police expected to have a preliminary analysis Thursday of any suspicious materials they turned up Wednesday night.
Sesmas had signed in at the building at 9:30 a.m. to make a delivery, McClellan said. He installed window blinds on several floors for a suburban Columbus business called Inside Outfitters, which owns the van, police said.
The company did not return messages seeking comment.
Bob Morgan, an investigator with the attorney general's office, said employees were told to leave via stairways. They were not told why.
"It was a very eerie feeling," he said of his walk from the 14th floor.
The court, which occupies seven floors, was not in session on Wednesday and no justices were in the building when the evacuation was ordered, court spokesman Jay Wuebbold said.
Neither were the two other elected officials with offices in the building, Treasurer Joseph Deters and Attorney General Betty Montgomery, spokesmen said.
Gov. Bob Taft was in his office, which is a block from the Rhodes tower, said Joe Andrews, Taft's spokesman.
The building was named after former Gov. James A. Rhodes, a Republican who served four terms. He died last year.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)