Breaking News Emails
Authorities in Tennessee and Georgia have questioned a "person of interest" in their peculiar investigation of creepy anonymous letters sent to dozens of Southern churches by someone calling himself "The Waster."
The photocopied, handwritten letter — which criticizes "you preachers, ministers, and chaplains" for not teaching all of the commandments of the Bible — has been sent to at least 50 churches in the last two weeks in Blount, McMinn, Monroe and Ocoee counties in Tennessee and in Murray County, Georgia. They said the letters are likely to have popped up elsewhere, too.
Investigators said they were able to make contact with the man, who told them all he was doing was expressing his religious beliefs. NBC News isn't naming the man because he isn't suspected of a crime — in fact, Monroe County, Tennessee, Sheriff Tommy Jones said, "this is not a criminal investigation."
In a joint statement Thursday, Jones and McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy said they had identified the man through a photograph of him leaving a letter at a church in McMinn County. He is also believed to have been seen at churches in Monroe and Blount counties.
Ocoee Baptist Church in Ocoee County, Tennessee, meanwhile, confirmed that it had also received the letter.
"We really hope there is nothing harmful meant toward any church that these were dropped off at, but it's always better to be precautious," it said in a statement.
The Tennessee and Georgia State Bureaus of Investigation have joined the inquiry, authorities said Thursday, even though the spooky letters don't include an explicit threat.
Authorities said they would continue to monitor the situation, because members of dozens of churches have been frightened by references in the letter to Isaiah 54:16-17:
Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy. I have formed every man who is engaged in spreading desolation by wars, and I have every such man under my control.
The letters are signed "The Waster."
Many biblical scholars interpret that passage of Isaiah to suggest that the Old Testament God is reassuring Israel that it need not fear any human military structures — because if he made them, he can defeat them.
The verses are also sometimes believed to play a role in the movie "The Matrix Reloaded" — the vanity license plate on the car driven by the nihilistic Agent Smith, played by Hugo Weaving, reads IS 5416.
"There are no specific threats in the letters, and anyone is entitled to free speech as well as their opinion, but this reference certainly makes people uncomfortable with past incidents of violence in churches," Jones said.