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Governor, mayor livid as Boston ad stunt spurs chaos

Enraged city and state officials today readied a legal assault against those responsible for an unconventional advertising campaign that dotted the city with small battery-powered light screens, setting off fears of terrorism and shutting down major roadways and subway lines for parts of the day.

Authorities today were retrieving the 38 magnetic signs depicting cartoon characters under bridges, on storefronts, and outside Fenway Park, among other locations that were installed as part of a Turner Broadcasting System marketing blitz for a Cartoon Network television show.

For hours, police treated the signs, about 1 by 1-1/2 feet with protruding wires and batteries, as potentially dangerous until they found one in a darker area, where the cartoon character pattern was clearly visible, triggered by an absence of sunlight. A Boston Police analyst later recognized the cartoon, and it was proclaimed a hoax -- drawing far more publicity than Turner Broadcasting System Inc. ever contemplated.

The company apologized about 4:30 p.m.

‘‘We really deeply regret that it was horribly misinterpreted to be a public danger, when all it was intended to do was to draw attention to a late-night television show,’’ Phil Kent, TBS chairman and CEO in Atlanta said. ‘‘This is not the kind of publicity we would ever seek.’’

The ordeal began around 8 a.m. when an MBTA worker spotted one of the devices affixed to an I-93 ramp near Sullivan Square in Charlestown, forcing the shutdown of the northbound side of the Interstate and tying up traffic for hours. The state police bomb squad detonated the object at about 10 a.m. Then, in quick sequence just after noon, reports of similarly suspicious devices flooded police lines, sending anti-terrorism forces to over a dozen locations in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.

Last night, police arrested Peter Berdovsky of Arlington, an artist who told the Globe earlier in the day that he installed the signs for an ad firm hired by TBS. Berdovsky, who described himself as ‘‘a little kind of freaked out,’’ faces up to five years in prison on charges of placing a hoax device in a way that causes panic and disorderly conduct.

Attorney General Martha Coakley told reporters charges against others are possible.

Turner Broadcasting’s apology did little to assuage outraged officials in the three cities and state government, where lawyers are preparing legal efforts to recoup the cost of the massive police mobilization.

While no final tallies were immediately available, the deployment of dozens of state, federal, and Boston police specialists, from bomb experts to terrorism analysts, exceeded $500,000, according to Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

Asked last night if Turner Broadcasting would reimburse the state and cities, Kent said, ‘‘We’re certainly going to look at all the facts. We’re a very responsible company and we try to do the right thing.’’

Kent acknowledged that Turner never sought approval or permits or alerted authorities that it would put up the signs. The company hired by Turner for the campaign, New York-based Interference Inc., declined comment.

‘‘I don’t know exactly what legal agreements were between us and this marketing agency,’’ said Kent.

The signs, installed about two weeks ago, were part of a 10-city marketing campaign for the cartoon ‘‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force.’’ They had not set off terrorism fears in New York, Los Angeles, or any of the other locations, and today Turner Broadcasting scrambled to alert police in the other cities to their presence.

Kent, based in Atlanta, described a nerve-wracking sequence of events this afternoon, when he received a call from one of the company’s executives saying, ‘‘Turn on CNN.’’ CNN was at the time featuring news of the terrorism alert in Boston.

The company, realizing its campaign was probably the cause, went into damage control.

A visibly angry Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he would ask the Federal Communications Commission to yank TBS’s broadcasting license for what he called ‘‘an outrageous act to gain publicity for their product.’’

The officials said the campaign was especially reckless given Boston’s sensitivity to terrorism threats, after planes that left Logan Airport on Sept. 11, 2001, were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center.

In a statement, Menino said: ‘‘It is outrageous, in a post-9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme. 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.’’

But others said they realized it was not dangerous.

April James, 32, said she saw one of the devices in a sandy area under the Longfellow Bridge about three weeks ago.

‘‘I kicked it first, then I picked it up,’’ said James, a hairdresser who says she walks and jogs over the bridge nearly everyday.

‘‘It looked like a bomb. I picked it up, pulled the tape off it, and there were batteries, two on the top and three on the bottom.’’

James said she was not frightened by the device, which she said she returned to its original spot, near the sidewalk in front of the bridge, before continuing with her walk.

‘‘I should have moved it, put it in a bin’’ James said, while looking down from the Longfellow Bridge in the area police had gathered to detonate the bomb just minutes earlier.

Bryan Richards, 34, said the prank was a tasteless joke.

‘‘This city’s too beautiful to blow up,’’ Richards said.

‘‘It’s not funny when someone threatens other people’s lives and when the police mobilize, I get upset.’’

While walking past MBTA police on Boston Common today , James Palumbo, 34, said he was unaffected by the hoax.

‘‘I just feel like it’s part of living in the city,’’ said Palumbo, an environmental engineer who lives on Beacon Hill. ‘‘It just seems like these kind of scares tend to come up every few months. They rarely turn out to be the real thing. Because of several we’ve had the past couple of years, you tend to think it’s not the real thing first.’’

David Abel, Maria Cramer, Mac Daniel, John R. Ellement, Michael Levenson, Andrew C. Ryan, Maria Sacchetti, Donovan Slack, and Lisa Wangsness of the Globe Staff and Globe correspondents April Simpson and Michael Naughton contributed to this story.