BELFAST, Maine — Although authorities never informed the community about the presence of radioactive materials in the home of James Cummings, residents and workers in the neighborhood either knew of them or suspected something dangerous was contained there.
The materials, which a leaked FBI report indicated could be used to build a dirty bomb, were removed from the home of Cummings, 29, during a search of his house after he was shot to death Dec. 9.
Police say Cummings’ 31-year-old wife Amber Cummings shot him in their residence. Police that night began their investigation into what they termed a domestic violence homicide, and the home was kept under police guard. The next day a number of detectives, a mobile crime lab and a National Guard civil team descended on the home at 346 High St.
“The search went on for days,” former Mayor Michael Hurley recalled Wednesday. Hurley, who lives just down High Street from the home, said numerous trucks and cars were parked at the site well into the night.
“It was clear that it was an abnormal length of time to search a house that somebody just got shot in,” Hurley said. “There were a lot of guys in a lot of special vehicles coming and going. You don’t know who they are.”
Valerie Fargo, a clerk at Belfast Variety, which is two doors down from the Cummings house, said Amber Cummings was a frequent patron at the store and was nice and very polite. Fargo said she heard rumors from people in the store the day after the shooting that radioactive materials had been removed from the house.
“When I learned he had that stuff in there I was ready to run. That is quite scary. I did not want to come to work,” Fargo said. “It was a scary thought knowing that stuff was that close.”
Belfast Police Chief Jeffrey Trafton said Wednesday that he was assured by the hazardous materials removal team that the radioactive materials were contained and posed no danger. He said the team was called in the moment the materials were discovered and removed them quickly.
“The stuff [Cummings] had in its present form wasn’t a danger to the community,” Trafton said, echoing a statement released Wednesday by Maine Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan. “The technicians told me you would have to get real close to it for a long time to be exposed to radiation,” he said.
Jordan’s statement confirmed Wednesday that hazardous items had been removed from the residence.
Also discovered in the home along with the radioactive materials were explosive chemicals and instructions on building a dirty bomb. The materials were apparently listed in Maine State Police search warrants associated with the investigation, but those documents were impounded by the court and were not made available to the public.
Even so, media and some residents had heard rumors within days of the shooting that dangerous chemicals and explosives had been removed from the house. Officials declined to confirm the rumors until the BDN broke the story Wednesday.
Gary Haslan, director of support services and emergency planning at Waldo County General Hospital, said the hospital has policies and equipment in place to handle exposure to radioactive, chemical and other contaminants. He said all Maine hospitals were provided the equipment in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that hospital personnel undergo annual disaster training.
The major piece of equipment is a self-contained tent containing showers and other medical equipment. Haslan said that in the event of an emergency the tent would be set up outside the hospital and people exposed to materials would pass through for pre-treatment before entering the hospital. Emergency workers wear special suits to protect them from the contaminants.
“The treatment depends on the agent,” Haslan said. “We have 18 employees to handle decontamination on site.”
The contents of the Cummings home were detailed in an internal FBI memorandum obtained by the Washington Regional Threat and Analysis Center that was leaked on the Internet through the Web sites Wikileaks and unattributable.com last month. The Cummings findings were contained in a security memo dealing with the preparations for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Amber Cummings told police her husband was “very angry” when Obama won the election, according to the memo.
Cummings was an admirer of Adolf Hitler, owned Nazi memorabilia and had contacts with white supremacist organizations, according to acquaintances.
Travis Benjamin, son of the Belfast Variety owners, said he did not feel threatened by the presence of the materials. Benjamin said he figured the police had the situation under control from the beginning. He said Amber Cummings was a frequent customer but that he never laid eyes on her husband.
“She was in and out all the time and seemed like a real nice lady. She’s always been nice and she has an awesome kid,” he said. “I never knew the guy and never saw the guy. I guess he kind of kept to himself.”
While some tradesmen who worked for James Cummings spoke earlier of how they had a bad impression of him and how he treated his wife, next-door neighbor Charlie Parker said he never saw the couple argue or fight. Parker said he built a retaining wall for Cummings last year and often stopped to say hello to him when he was walking to or from the variety.
“I saw the bomb squad go in, but I wasn’t worried. He always seemed nice to me,” Parker said Wednesday. “He never talked about any bombs, but he did show me some pistols he had, Nazi memorabilia, a Nazi dagger. I thought those things were cool, but I’m no Nazi by any stretch of the imagination. He told me he was a Nazi.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.