by CHARLIE SAVAGE
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.