Suspect jailed in Waterville courthouse white-powder scare

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WATERVILLE — A Waterville man is accused of placing white powder into his ballot return envelope, which led to an emergency response and a two-day shutdown at the Douglas County Courthouse.

Douglas County deputies arrested 66-year-old Howard Allen Lane at his home on Thursday. Sheriff Kevin Morris said investigators suspect Lane inserted a nontoxic white powder into his Douglas County election ballot before returning it by mail to the courthouse.

Lane remained Monday in the Okanogan County Jail. Because the powder posed no physical threat, Morris said, deputies are only seeking a gross misdemeanor charge of disrupting an elections center.

Elections staffers on the fourth floor opened the envelope Oct. 24, and called authorities when the powder spilled out. Deputies ordered the courthouse evacuated, and EMTs and medical staff at Central Washington Hospital checked four county workers for exposure. The courthouse and campus remained closed Oct. 25 while deputies investigated.

Lane has no prior criminal record, and Morris said he has denied any involvement in the scare. Apart from an unspecified amount of powder, deputies recovered what appeared to be a piece of a dissolvable pill capsule from Lane’s ballot envelope.

The Washington State Patrol Crime Lab quickly judged the powder was nontoxic, but its exact nature is still unknown, Morris said.

The return envelope had become separated from the ballot itself when the powder was noticed, Morris said, and sheriff’s detectives had to backtrack and run calculations to tie the ballot to its sender.

“Election ballots are designed to be anonymous, and that’s how it’s supposed to be, and generally they are, ” Morris said. “… Our investigators did some sample ballots to understand exactly how it worked, and then they did some math and figured out the most likely candidate, got it down to a batch. Then the envelope itself that had the signature had white powder substance, the ones around it did not.” 

Deputies are asking for a gross misdemeanor charge of “prohibited acts in a voting center.” That law covers almost any intentional act that would disrupt voting or elections.