'Attention Wal-Mart shoppers'

Wooden crates marked as containing “ammunition” caused quite a stir at the Wal-Mart store in Oak Harbor Friday.

A Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal team responded after Wal-Mart was evacuated and the parking lot secured. Dozens of curious people watched the activity, traffic jammed and a TV news helicopter circled overhead.

In the end, the two crates turned out to be empty, but somebody may be in a whole heap of trouble for leaving the suspicious items in a public place.

Capt. Rick Wallace with Oak Harbor Police said police were notified of the suspicious containers in the parking lot, not far from the front doors of Wal-Mart, by a store employee at about 11:15 a.m. A patrol sergeant arrived at the parking lot and decided that the crates were questionable enough to take seriously.

“It’s better to err on the side of caution,” said Det. Jerry Baker, who was also at the scene.

Robert Vanslooten, a traveling portrait photographer for Wal-Mart, said he was working when a “code blue” was announced over the intercom system. Everyone in the store was told there was an “electrical problem,” he said, and they were asked to leave through a rear door in the automotive department.

But Vanslooten said he and many others simply walked back around to the front of the store and got into their vehicles. He said he even strolled right past the suspicious “green crates” on his way out.

Police and firefighters helped evacuate Wal-Mart and then set up a perimeter around the store, shutting down the parking lot and several entrances. Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Mobile Unit 11 with Detachment Northwest, was quickly notified of the concern. The team, which is based on the Whidbey Island Seaplane base, responds to explosive situations all over the Northwest.

Lt. Jeffrey Cote with EOD Detachment Northwest was first briefed by Wallace and Fire Chief Mark Soptich when they got to the scene. He said the police and firefighters did “a great job” of setting up the perimeters, but he asked them to move the onlookers back a little farther.

A member of the team got dressed in a “bomb suit,” Cote explained, and performed the routine “EOD procedures” on the crates to determine if any explosives were present. Using an X-ray device and other classified techniques, the unit was able to determine that the crates were empty.

The final examination, which Wallace referred to “the old yank and run test,” an EOD member tied a string to the crates and pulled them open from many yards away. Fortunately, nothing exploded.

In all, the bomb-checking process took about an hour and a half, though the parking lot stayed closed longer for the investigation.

Baker said it’s now the police department’s job to find out “who the comedian is” who left the crates in the parking lot. Wallace said it shouldn’t be too hard to find a suspect since Wal-Mart has “excellent parking lot security cameras.” He added that the police will have to determine the suspect’s motive to figure out what type of crime, if any, was committed.

“It could range from an accident,” he said, “to something more malicious or even a threat.”

But for many Oak Harbor residents, the suspicious packages brought a little excitement, along with a little aggravation, to their lives.

Oak Harbor resident Glenna Smith was shopping at Wal-Mart with her sister when the announcement came to evacuate the building. They were told that there as an electrical problem. They went out the back door and walked around to the front where a store security person told them that there were two ammo boxes from Venezuela in the parking lot.

“He said, ‘You can walk to your cars and leave right now, we can’t stop you,” she said, “but we prefer if you go around to the back of the building.”

Smith and her sister, who are both photographers, decided to get their cameras out of a car. They started taking pictures until a manager from Wal-Mart ordered her sister to stop. So they walked up an embankment and continued to take photos of the scene.

Lisa Wurzrainer of Coupeville had stopped at Wal-Mart to have her oil changed. She was shopping with her children Sebastian, 4, and Tia, 18 months, when the call to evacuate came.

“They said it was an electrical problem which was odd especially with the East Coast blackout yesterday,” she said.

Teofila Aquilar only wanted to buy diapers and other baby things for a friend’s new arrival. She was ready to check out when everyone was asked to leave.

Aquilar said she noticed several green boxes in the parking lot, but didn’t think anything was unusual until she and her four children were outside.

“When I heard people talking about boxes of ammunition, I realized I parked my van next to them,” Aquilar said, laughing nervously.

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