FAIRBANKS - A bomb threat called in to North Pole Middle School was followed by a robbery at a nearby credit union and police said the incidents may be connected.
Alaska USA Federal Credit Union inside the North Pole Carrs/Safeway grocery store was robbed at about 2 p.m. Wednesday.
"There's a suspected connection," said North Pole Police Lt. Steve Dutra.
North Pole is a city of less than 2,000 people about 14 miles south of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway.
The robbery was the 12th robbery of a bank or credit union in Alaska this year, according to the FBI.
A secretary at North Pole Middle School took the bomb threat call at about 1:20 Wednesday afternoon. The caller said the bomb would explode in two minutes.
Forty minutes later, a man that witnesses said was in his 20s entered the credit union, approached a teller and demanded money. He received an undisclosed amount and fled on foot.
The grocery store anchors one end of the North Pole Plaza, a mall a few blocks from the school. Law enforcement authorities rushed to the mall and sealed off entrances. Shoppers were allowed to finished their business and leave.
An FBI agent said authorities combed the mall for the suspect, described as a white, slender, 5 feet, 10 inches tall with blue eyes. He had a black motocross helmet, a black jacket and dark-colored bunny boots.
James Lundgren, a hardware store manager who works at the other end of the mall, said he saw a young man with a helmet walk by and leave through a back exit. The man was not in a hurry, Lundgren said.
Other mall employees noticed no one fitting the suspect's description. The mall also has a clothing store, a tailor, a hairdresser, craft store and a computer gaming store.
The robber's image was caught on a security camera and law enforcement officers passed around his picture. The robber's face was obscured.
Authorities said no customers were inside the credit union during the robbery.
At the middle school, law enforcement officials sealed off doors and brought in bomb-sniffing dogs.
Seventh-grader Katie Smith was in gym class, her last period before school is let out at 2:30 p.m.
"I was scared when they told us there was a bomb threat," she said. One of her friends started to cry.
School officials told the students about the credit union robbery and the likelihood that the bomb threat was a diversion.
Smith said pupils were calm during the lockdown and spent time talking with each other.
After a search of the school, students assembled in the school gym.
School officials said keeping students inside is long-established protocol. Freezing temperatures were one of the reasons given why students were not automatically evacuated.
Parents waiting outside were less calm. About a dozen huddled on a sidewalk just outside school grounds. The temperature was in the teens. Fire trucks were parked in the street nearby.
Several parents learned of the situation through an automated call, which said students were safe but that there had been a bomb threat.
"I'm not a very patient mom," said Jennifer Rood, who waited for permission to retrieve her seventh-grader. "I hear bomb threat. I'm here."
"I'm nervous sick," said Gabbie McFetridge, who left her tanning business to pick up her seventh-grader.
"These are our babies," said Sara Arnold, who was eager see her daughter, an eighth-grader. "You do not come between a mom and her baby."
The North Pole fire chief repeatedly encouraged the parents to wait in their vehicles but some insisted on waiting outside, closer to the school.
Students were released about two hours after the school day ended. Parents had to show identification. Students' names were called out over a loudspeaker in the gym.
Law enforcement authorities Wednesday also were distracted by a suspicious package found in the loading dock at the post office in downtown Fairbanks. Fairbanks police said the unmarked package turned out to be mail that had not been labeled. Explosives experts from Eielson Air Force Base were called in to examine the package.