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Pair plead not guilty in Turner advertising fiasco

Published on: 02/01/07

The fallout from the terror scare caused by a bizarre Cartoon Network advertising campaign spilled into a Boston courtroom Thursday.

A judge ordered two men held on bond for allegedly placing electronic advertising devices around the city, an act that stirred fears of an attack and shut down parts of Boston.

Sean Stevens, 28, left, and Peter Berdovsky, 27, laugh it up during their arraignment in Boston Thursday. They pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from their placement of electronic ad devices around the city, stirring terrorism fears and disrupting the city on Wednesday.
Todd Vanderlin/AP
A driver's view of one of 38 electronic blinking devices seen at highway bridges and other prominent spots around Boston. The devices, seen here in the upper left corner, depict a Cartoon Network character giving passersby the finger.
A close-up of one of the Cartoon Network ad devices, held by a Boston investigator.

The Cartoon Network issued an apology. Read it here.

Peter Berdovsky, 27, and Sean Stevens, 28, were held on $2,500 cash bond each after they pleaded not guilty to placing a hoax device and disorderly conduct for a device found Wednesday at a subway station.

Meanwhile, angry state and local authorities vowed to hold Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting Systems Inc., which owns Cartoon Network, accountable for what Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said was "corporate greed," that led to at least $750,000 in police costs.

Officials found 38 blinking electronic signs promoting the Cartoon Network TV show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" on bridges and other high-profile spots across the city Wednesday, prompting the closing of a highway and the deployment of bomb squads. The surreal series is about a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball.

"It's clear the intent was to get attention by causing fear and unrest that there was a bomb in that location," Assistant Attorney General John Grossman said at their arraignment.

The 1-foot tall signs, which were lit up at night, resembled a circuit board, with protruding wires and batteries. Most depicted a boxy, cartoon character giving passersby the finger — a more obvious sight when darkness fell.

The men did not speak or enter their own pleas, but they appeared amused and smiled as the prosecutor talked about the device found at Sullivan Station underneath Interstate 93, looking like it had C-4 explosive.

"The appearance of this device and its location are crucial," Grossman said. "This device looks like a bomb."

Some in the gallery snickered.

Outside the courthouse, Michael Rich, a lawyer for both of the men, said the description of a bomb-like device could be used for any electronic device.

"If somebody had left a VCR on the ground it would have been a device with wires, electronic components and a power source," he said.

Boston officials were livid when the devices were discovered.

"It is outrageous, in a post 9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme," Menino said Wednesday. "I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred during the response to today's incidents."

Berdovsky, an artist, told The Boston Globe he was hired by a marketing company and said he was "kind of freaked out" by the furor.

"I find it kind of ridiculous that they're making these statements on TV that we must not be safe from terrorism, because they were up there for three weeks and no one noticed. It's pretty commonsensical to look at them and say this is a piece of art and installation," he said.

Fans of the show mocked authorities for what they called an overreaction.

About a dozen fans gathered outside Charlestown District Court on Thursday morning with signs saying "1-31-07 Never Forget" and "Free Peter."

"We're the laughing stock," said Tracy O'Connor, 34.

"It's almost too easy to be a terrorist these days," said Jennifer Mason, 26. "You stick a box on a corner and you can shut down a city."

Authorities vowed to hold Turner accountable for what Menino said was "corporate greed," that led to at least $750,000 in police costs.

As soon as Turner realized the Boston problem around 5 p.m., it said, law enforcement officials were told of their locations in 10 cities where it said the devices had been placed for two to three weeks: Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

"We apologize to the citizens of Boston that part of a marketing campaign was mistaken for a public danger," said Phil Kent, chairman of Turner, a division of Time Warner Inc.

Kent said the marketing company that placed the signs, Interference Inc., was ordered to remove them immediately.

Interference had no 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.

Messages seeking additional comment from the Atlanta-based Cartoon Network were left with several publicists.

Authorities are investigating whether Turner or other companies should be criminally charged, Attorney General Martha Coakley said. "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.

In Seattle and several suburbs, the removal of the signs was low-key. "We haven't had any calls to 911 regarding this," Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb said Wednesday.

Police in Philadelphia said they believed their city had 56 devices.

The New York Police Department removed 41 of the devices — 38 in Manhattan and three in Brooklyn, according to spokesman Paul Browne. The NYPD had not received any complaints. But when it became aware of the situation, it contacted Cartoon Network, which provided the locations so the devices could be removed.

The promotion was meant to draw attention to the "Aqua Teen" TV show, which will soon be the subject of a movie. The cartoon appears as part of Adult Swim, a block of grown-up targeted shows in the late-night hours on Turner's Cartoon Network.

The promotional light boxes were developed in Atlanta by Cartoon Network marketing staffers. They wanted a low-budget, guerrilla-style marketing campaign. The "Aqua Teen" movie is set to debut in March.

The boxes had neon lights that lit up at night. Some featured a character named Ignignokt that gives passers-by the middle finger.

For the uninitiated, "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" is an action-comedy that features three stars of sorts —- Meatwad, a meatball-shaped character; Frylock, a talking container of fries; and Master Shake, who is, as the name implies, a milkshake.

The program is meant to appeal to an audience of males in their teens and 20s. The snarky Web site Wonkette opined that "Aqua Teen" is "watched only by college students who smoke marijuana."

Maybe that's why some concerned Bostonians didn't get it. Fred Toucher, a former radio personality at Atlanta's 99X, now works for rock station WBCN-FM in Boston. Toucher said that when he and another former 99X jock saw photos of the so-called "bomb" Wednesday, they instantly identified it as a character from "Aqua Teen."

"One of our listeners said that they had been up around town for weeks," Toucher wrote in an e-mail after the brouhaha died down. "It is a big deal here, even though it seems pretty dumb now."

The mess in Boston hasn't been repeated so far in other cities. Turner said the devices were planted recently in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Austin, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

Joe Cobb, Atlanta Police Department public information officer, said his department was unaware of the devices and had received no complaints. Nonetheless, APD's Homeland Security unit was notified Wednesday to be on the lookout.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said he wants to punish those responsible. After Turner made its announcement, Menino said he was "prepared to take any and all legal action" against the company and its affiliates "for any and all expenses incurred during the response to today's incidents."

The Associated Press and staff writers Scott Leith, Rodney Ho, Richard Eldredge, Julia Malone and Jeffry Scott contributed to this article.

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