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A Onetime ‘Person of Interest’ Moves a Step Closer to Public Exoneration

by CHARLIE SAVAGE

The New York Times [1]

WASHINGTON — Hav­ing been named a “per­son of inter­est” in the inves­ti­ga­tion of the 2001 anthrax attacks, the for­mer Army sci­en­tist Steven J. Hat­fill has tried for six years to clear his name, both inside court and out.

Now the dis­clo­sure that a for­mer col­league died this week, appar­ent­ly by sui­cide, just as inves­ti­ga­tors pre­pared to seek his indict­ment in the case has pro­vid­ed the clear­est indi­ca­tion yet that Dr. Hat­fill may final­ly achieve his goal.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment, which has not pub­licly exon­er­at­ed Dr. Hat­fill, would not com­ment about the case on Fri­day. But all indi­ca­tions are that inves­ti­ga­tors have lost inter­est in him.

A lawyer famil­iar with the inves­ti­ga­tion of the for­mer col­league, Bruce E. Ivins, who like Dr. Hat­fill worked at the Army’s biode­fense lab­o­ra­to­ries at Fort Det­rick, Md., said the expec­ta­tion had been that Dr. Ivins would be indict­ed alone. But he died Tues­day after tak­ing an over­dose of pre­scrip­tion painkillers.

Dr. Hat­fill, now 54, spent years in the glare of offi­cial sus­pi­cion after some­one mailed envelopes con­tain­ing anthrax pow­der to gov­ern­ment offi­cials and news orga­ni­za­tions in late 2001.

Those sus­pi­cions became pub­lic in mid-2002, when F.B.I. agents wear­ing bio­haz­ard suits were shown on tele­vi­sion raid­ing Dr. Hatfill’s apart­ment. John Ashcroft, then the attor­ney gen­er­al, lat­er described Dr. Hat­fill as a “per­son of inter­est” in the inves­ti­ga­tion.

Dr. Hat­fill held a tear­ful news con­fer­ence in August 2002 where he denied any involve­ment in the attacks and con­tend­ed that he had been smeared by F.B.I. leaks and irre­spon­si­ble news report­ing. But he would spend years more under scruti­ny.

He accused inves­ti­ga­tors of alert­ing the news media in advance to the search of his home, and lat­er of con­duct­ing con­stant sur­veil­lance of him. His home phone was wire­tapped, he said, and agents fol­lowed him wher­ev­er he went.

Five years ago in the George­town sec­tion of Wash­ing­ton, he approached the car of an F.B.I. agent who had been trail­ing him, want­i­ng to take the agent’s pic­ture. The agent drove off, and his car ran over Dr. Hatfill’s foot. The police lat­er issued a tick­et to Dr. Hat­fill for “walk­ing to cre­ate a haz­ard,” and he was fined $5. No tick­et was giv­en the agent.

Declar­ing that his life was being destroyed by harass­ment, Dr. Hat­fill went to court to try to clear his name.

He filed a law­suit against the gov­ern­ment con­tend­ing that offi­cials had leaked infor­ma­tion about him in vio­la­tion of the Pri­va­cy Act. As part of that case, the court sub­poe­naed reporters who had quot­ed anony­mous law enforce­ment offi­cials and tried to force them to dis­close those sources.

In Feb­ru­ary, the judge in the case, Reg­gie B. Wal­ton, found Toni Locy, a for­mer reporter for USA Today, in con­tempt of court after Ms. Locy said she could not recall the sources of infor­ma­tion in sev­er­al arti­cles she had writ­ten.

“There’s not a scin­til­la of evi­dence to sug­gest Dr. Hat­fill had any­thing to do with it,” Judge Wal­ton said at the time, yet the pub­lic noto­ri­ety has “destroyed his life.”

Ms. Locy appealed the deci­sion, but Dr. Hatfill’s lawyers dropped their demands for her tes­ti­mo­ny after the gov­ern­ment agreed in June to pay him $2.825 mil­lion plus a 20-year annu­al annu­ity of $150,000 to set­tle the law­suit.

Dr. Hat­fill also waged a legal bat­tle against news orga­ni­za­tions, say­ing arti­cles sug­gest­ing that he might have been behind the anthrax mail­ings had defamed him.

One of his suits was against The New York Times and its Op-Ed colum­nist Nicholas D. Kristof. Mr. Kristof was lat­er dropped as a defen­dant, and the suit against The Times was dis­missed. In July, a three-judge pan­el of a fed­er­al appeals court unan­i­mous­ly upheld the dis­missal, though Dr. Hat­fill has asked the full court to rehear the case.

David E. McCraw, assis­tant gen­er­al coun­sel of The New York Times Com­pa­ny, declined to com­ment Fri­day on the death of Dr. Ivins or its effect on the lit­i­ga­tion. Mr. Kristof, who is on vaca­tion and out of cell­phone range, could not be reached for com­ment.

Dr. Hat­fill also sued Van­i­ty Fair for pub­lish­ing an arti­cle about the case by Don­ald Fos­ter, along with Reader’s Digest, which pub­lished a con­densed ver­sion. As part of a 2007 set­tle­ment, oth­er terms of which were con­fi­den­tial, the defen­dants issued a state­ment retract­ing any impli­ca­tion that Dr. Hat­fill had been behind the attacks.

Thomas G. Con­nol­ly, a lawyer for Dr. Hat­fill, said Fri­day that he had “noth­ing at this point” to say about the case. Mr. Con­nol­ly said he would wait until the F.B.I., hav­ing first briefed the fam­i­lies of the anthrax attacks’ vic­tims, released more infor­ma­tion about its inves­ti­ga­tion of Dr. Ivins.

“Out of respect for the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies, we’re not going to make any com­ments until the fam­i­lies are briefed,” Mr. Con­nol­ly said.

Dr. Hat­fill, he added, is not inter­est­ed in speak­ing direct­ly with reporters about the case.

Scott Shane con­tributed report­ing.