BOSTON – Several illuminated electronic devices planted at bridges and other spots in Boston threw a scare into the city Wednesday in what turned out to be a publicity campaign for a late-night cable cartoon. Most if not all of the devices depict a character giving the finger.
Peter Berdovsky, 29, of Arlington, was arrested on one felony charge of placing a hoax device and one charge of disorderly conduct, state Attorney General Martha Coakley said later Wednesday. He had been hired to place the devices, she said.
Highways, bridges and a section of the Charles River were shut down and bomb squads were sent in before authorities declared the devices were harmless.
Turner Broadcasting, a division of Time Warner Inc. and parent of Cartoon Network, later said the devices were part of a promotion for the TV show “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a surreal series about a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball.
Authorities are investigating whether Turner and any other companies should be criminally charged, Coakley said. It wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday who might have hired Berdovsky.
“We’re not going to let this go without looking at the further roots of how this happened to cause the panic in this city,” Coakley said at a news conference.
Those conducting the campaign should have known the devices could cause panic because they were placed in sensitive areas, she said. Turner did not notify officials of the publicity campaign until around 5 p.m., nearly four hours after the first calls came in about the devices, she and others said.
At least 14 of the devices were found, Coakley said.
“The packages in question are magnetic lights that pose no danger,” Turner said in a statement.
It said the devices have been in place for two to three weeks in 10 cities: Boston; New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Atlanta; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas; San Francisco; and Philadelphia.
“We regret that they were mistakenly thought to pose any danger,” the company said. As soon as the company realized the problem, it said, law enforcement officials were told of their locations in all 10 cities.
The marketing firm that put them up, Interference Inc., has been ordered to remove them immediately, said Phil Kent, Turner chairman.
“We apologize to the citizens of Boston that part of a marketing campaign was mistaken for a public danger,” Kent said. “We appreciate the gravity of this situation and, like any responsible company would, are putting all necessary resources toward understanding the facts surrounding it as quickly as possible.”
Interference Inc. had no immediate comment. A woman who answered the phone at the New York-based firm’s offices Wednesday afternoon said the firm’s CEO was out of town and would not be able to comment until Thursday.
There were no reports from police Wednesday of residents in the other nine cities spotting similar devices.
Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke praised Boston authorities for sharing their knowledge quickly with Washington officials and the public.
“Hoaxes are a tremendous burden on local law enforcement and counter-terrorism resources and there’s absolutely no place for them in a post-9/11 world,” Knocke said.
Authorities said some of the objects looked like circuit boards or had wires hanging from them.
The first device was found at a subway and bus station underneath Interstate 93, forcing the shutdown of the station and the highway.
Later, police said four calls, all around 1 p.m., reported devices at the Boston University Bridge and the Longfellow Bridge, both of which span the Charles River, at a Boston street corner and at the Tufts-New England Medical Center.
The package near the Boston University bridge was found attached to a structure beneath the span, authorities said.
Subway service across the Longfellow Bridge between Boston and Cambridge was briefly suspended, and Storrow Drive was closed as well. A similar device was found Wednesday evening just north of Fenway Park, police spokesman Eddy Chrispin said.
Wanda Higgins, a 47-year-old Weymouth resident and a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital, heard about the threat as she watched television news coverage while preparing to leave work at 4 p.m.
“I saw the bomb squad guys carrying a paper bag with their bare hands,” Higgins said. “I knew it couldn’t be too serious.”
Messages seeking additional comment from the Atlanta-based Cartoon Network were left with several publicists.
“Aqua Teen Hunger Force” is a cartoon with a cultish following that airs as part of the Adult Swim late-night block of programs for adults on the Cartoon Network. A feature length film based on the show is slated for release March 23.
The cartoon also includes two trouble-making, 1980s-graphic-like characters called “mooninites,” named Ignignokt and Err — who were pictured on the suspicious devices. They are known for making the obscene hand gesture depicted on the devices.