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Troopers: couple left lunch bag at Canton DMV, prompting evacuation

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CANTON — It turned out to be someone’s misplaced lunch.

But police and St. Lawrence County officials weren’t taking any chances Wednesday morning when Department of Motor Vehicles staff spotted a black satchel containing a foil-covered bottle sitting unattended on a DMV office counter at the St. Lawrence County Human Services Building on Route 310.

At about 10:15 a.m., DMV staff notified the St. Lawrence County administrator’s office that a “suspicious-looking” bag was found on a shelf and called Canton police, County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

Nearly 200 people, about 150 employees and 50 visitors, were in the building at the time, she said. The facility houses the DMV, One-Stop Career Center, Community Services and several other departments.

“The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘There is a 97 percent chance that this is not an incident,’ but we’re not going to take any chances, and we need to err on the side of caution,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.

The building was evacuated within five minutes, Ms. St. Hilaire said, and remained closed for the day. It is to reopen this morning.

“Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely,” she said.

Village police and St. Lawrence County sheriff’s deputies were joined by state police, who dispatched a bomb squad from Lake Placid.

Troopers with bomb-sniffing dogs arrived shortly after 11 a.m. and spent more than an hour sweeping the building, during which time they X-rayed the errant bag to ensure it did not contain any explosives.

“While we were here doing that, a young couple came back here to the scene to report that they were here earlier in the day and were attempting to get a driver’s license,” said Capt. Michael J. Girard, state police Troop B zone commander.

“They needed some more documentation that the DMV required, then left the scene and forgot their bag.”

In the bag was a foil-wrapped Thermos bottle filled with juice; lunch items, an iPhone and a notebook, Capt. Girard said.

The couple’s names were not released, but both were questioned by police in connection with the incident. The husband, who could be heard thanking and apologizing to police outside the building, declined to give his name to reporters.

Evacuated employees who had their keys with them were sent home for the day, while those who had left their keys behind when they fled were driven to the St. Lawrence County Courthouse on a NYSARC bus to make arrangements to get home, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

While Ms. St. Hilaire believes the evacuation proceeded smoothly, she said county officials would meet to review the incident and emergency procedures.

In 2009, the county employed Securitas Security Services, Parsippany, N.J., to provide security at the Judson Street Harold B. Smith Social Services Building and the Human Services Building.

The Smith Building guards remain, but the county discontinued the Human Services guards in 2011 in order to save more than $75,000 per year, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

Whether the guards should be reinstated in the wake of Wednesday’s evacuation would need to be considered by legislators, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

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