After suicide, prosecutors reveal circumstantial anthrax case

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 6, 2008 

WASHINGTON — A top Justice Department official said Wednesday that investigators are confident that government scientist Bruce Ivins, who behaved erratically and was treated for mental illness before committing suicide last week, "was the only person involved" in the 2001 anthrax letter attacks that killed five people and terrorized the nation.

With the public disclosure of hundreds of pages of documents, the FBI and the Justice Department hoped to quell a week of media speculation about whether Ivins, 62, a former microbiologist at the U.S. Army's biological weapons research center at Fort Detrick, Md., was the culprit and whether they had sufficient evidence to prove it.

FBI Director Robert Mueller also met with survivors and family members of the victims for two hours Wednesday to detail the evidence before unveiling their case.

At a press conference Wednesday, investigators offered no direct evidence that Ivins, a 28-year researcher at Ft. Detrick, was the perpetrator.

But Jeffrey Taylor, the U.S. attorney in Washington, said that investigators "were able to rule out all but Dr. Ivins," whom he described as one "of a handful of scientists with the capability" to produce anthrax spores like those that were mailed to two U.S. senators and two media outlets.

"Painstaking investigation led us to the conclusion that Dr. Bruce E. Ivins was responsible for the death, sickness and fear brought to our country by the 2001 anthrax mailings, and it appears, based on the evidence, that he was acting alone," said Joseph Persichini, the assistant FBI director in charge of the bureau's Washington field office.

In the newly released documents, the FBI detailed a trail of circumstantial evidence against Ivins, including his access to highly purified anthrax with genetic mutations that matched the DNA of the spores that were mailed from a Princeton, N.J., mailbox in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

But the timing of the announcement, a week after Ivins' suicide and a month after the government paid another former Fort Detrick scientist almost $6 million for wrongly implicating him for years, drew skepticism about whether authorities now actually had the right man.

Ivins' lawyer, Paul F. Kemp, asserted his client's innocence and called the government's press conference "heaps of innuendo and a staggering lack of real evidence — all contorted to create the illusion of guilt by Dr. Ivins."

"What the public demanded today was concrete evidence," he said. "Instead, it was deluged with everything but."

Taylor defended the investigation as "a chain of evidentiary items that, assembled together, leads to one reasonable conclusion." As a result, Taylor said, the government soon would formally close the case.

Taylor said Ivins had failed to explain adequately why he spent long nighttime hours in his lab shortly before the attacks. In addition, investigators found distinctive printing flaws on the anthrax-laced envelopes and concluded that they "very likely" were purchased from a post office in Frederick, Md., near Ivins' home.

Authorities produced no evidence that Ivins was in Princeton on the dates the letters were mailed, but said that his schedule on those dates — Sept. 18 and Oct. 9, 2001 — left enough time for him to travel to New Jersey and back without being discovered.

Authorities also said that Ivins had an "obsession" with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, and noted that the sorority's Princeton University chapter is located down the street from the mailbox where the anthrax letters were sent.

The FBI said Ivins sent an e-mail a few days before the anthrax attacks warning that "Bin Laden terrorists for sure have anthrax and Sarin gas" and have "just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans," language similar to the warnings in the anthrax letters.

The FBI conducted more than 9,100 interviews and issued some 6,100 subpoenas in its investigation, which spanned six continents.

Taylor said the investigation took years because it required the development of new technology to help investigators obtain a "DNA fingerprint" of the anthrax in the attacks.

In FBI affidavits, the bureau said it took 1,000 samples from 16 laboratories whose inventories included the Ames strain of anthrax that was found in envelopes. The bureau determined that only eight samples contained all four genetic mutations found in the anthrax-laden letters mailed in 2001 and eventually traced them to a single batch, known as RMR-1029, to which only Ivins had access.

Ivins had been vaccinated for anthrax and was experienced in using a sophisticated tool needed to produce such an especially deadly strain of anthrax, the FBI said.

Agents also noted Ivins' long history of mental illness and psychotropic drug treatment and his confession to a co-worker that he had "incredible paranoid delusional thoughts."

A therapist who'd treated Ivins testified last month that Ivins had threatened several people, according to court records.

"I wish I could control the thoughts in my mind," agents said he wrote to a friend in August 2000. "It's hard enough sometimes controlling my behavior."

A review of Ivins' laboratory access records showed a "spike" in his late-night working hours beginning in August 2001 — about a month before the first mailing of anthrax in government envelopes, postmarked Sept. 18, 2001, and sent to NBC television in New York and to American Media in Boca Raton, Fla., an FBI affidavit said.

Before additional anthrax-laced letters postmarked Oct. 9, 2001 were sent to the offices of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Ivins visited the lab on eight straight nights beginning on Sept. 28, the last two for more than 3{ hours, the FBI said. Frequently, no one else was present during his nighttime visits, which occurred although Ivins had a minimal role in experiments under way at the time, the FBI said.

Asked by investigators in March 2005 to explain his access, the affidavit said, Ivins could offer "no legitimate reason," except to say that "home was not good" and that he went to the lab "to escape."

Agents accused Ivins of failing to give them samples of all the anthrax batches in his lab, which threw the investigation off course. When agents confronted him in March 2005, he initially denied giving them the wrong samples, an FBI affidavit said. He later changed his story and told agents that he'd known three months after the attacks that his batch was similar to the spores in the attacks.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Ivins had worked on and held a share of two anthrax vaccine patents, at least one of which was licensed to VaxGen, Inc., a California firm that later won an $877 million contract to make the vaccine for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Bioshield program. But when VaxGen failed to meet deadlines, the government scrapped the contract.

Taylor said that Ivins had been distraught that the military's anthrax vaccination program was in jeopardy of being shut down. Taylor said that Ivins might have decided to distribute the anthrax to "make people all of a sudden realize the need to have this vaccine."

Shortly before his death, prosecutors had sought a meeting with him to spell out the evidence the FBI had gathered, Taylor said.

The research institute at Fort Detrick banned Ivins from labs studying biological agents in November 2007, but offered little explanation as to why its monitoring program failed to lead to earlier action.

Dena Briscoe, a postal union official who represented employees who were sickened by the anthrax, attended the press conference and said she wasn't convinced that Ivins was the culprit.

"They had a lot of good evidence, but there are still a lot of holes," she said.

But David Hose, 65, a former State Department contract worker who breathed anthrax-contaminated mail, spent 12 days in the hospital and still suffers from heart and joint pain from the life-threatening bacterial infection, said it all sounds like a CIA cover-up — "a way to end the case."

"When they started saying the guy was a sociopath . . . that blew it right there," said Hose, who is suing the State Department and Ft. Detrick. "And how in the world would a sociopath work with someone else so closely, as they have for 28 years, and not be fired?"

(Tish Wells contributed to this article.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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