By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A package containing a crude but potentially lethal explosive device was mailed to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," but was intercepted by Arizona authorities, officials said on Friday.
Postal workers set aside the suspicious package late on Thursday in Flagstaff, Arizona, a popular vacation destination 120 miles north of Phoenix. It was later neutralized by police, officials said. Arpaio's office is in Phoenix.
Maricopa County Sheriff Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan said a person was wanted for questioning in the case, but he declined to reveal more details about the individual.
Arpaio, known for his hard-line approach to law enforcement, has taken an aggressive stance on illegal immigration that has made him a controversial figure.
A law enforcement official not with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office said investigators treated the device like a bomb and sent it to a lab of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service for analysis.
The "rather unsophisticated" contraption was still "a legitimate destructive device," said the official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the investigation. It consisted of gunpowder, wires and a battery, he said.
A crude instrument can "kill you just as easily" as another device, he said.
The package was originally dropped off at a U.S. Postal Service mailbox several miles from Flagstaff, Sheridan said. But it was set aside when a postal worker noticed some black gunpowder leaking from it and called authorities.
A police bomb squad came and examined the package, X-rayed it and saw "what appeared to be an explosive device inside," Sheridan said. They neutralized the package with a water cannon, he said.
"If the device had been detonated, it could have caused very serious injuries and possibly deaths," Sheridan said. "There was that much explosives found in the package."
Sheridan had said that authorities had identified a suspect in the case, but he later told reporters at a news conference that the individual was a "person of interest" or wanted for questioning
"We do have an investigative lead that is being aggressively followed up," he told reporters.
A spokesman for the FBI in Phoenix declined to comment.
Arpaio told Reuters in a phone interview he would not be deterred by such threats.
"I'm concerned and somewhat angry that certain groups around the nation want to intimidate me (to) get me to leave office," he said. "My answer to that is that it will never happen."
Sheridan told reporters that as recently as Wednesday, the sheriff's life had been threatened by a Mexican drug cartel but it was unclear if the mailing of the package was related to that threat.
Arpaio, 80, was swept to a sixth term in office in November by backers of his hardline stance on crime and illegal immigration.
The sheriff is the target of an ongoing U.S. Justice Department lawsuit alleging civil rights abuses by his office, including accusations of widespread racial profiling of Latinos in dozens of immigration "sweeps."
The Republican lawman has gained support from conservatives for locking up county inmates in a Spartan "Tent City" jail and for mounting a probe of President Barack Obama's Hawaiian birth certificate at the request of local Tea Party activists - a key Arpaio constituency.
(Additional reporting by Scott Malone in Boston, Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Orlosky, Cynthia Johnston and John Wallace)