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Scientist’s Suicide Linked to Anthrax Inquiry

The New York Times
Cor­rec­tion Append­ed

WASHINGTON — After four years pur­su­ing one for­mer Army sci­en­tist on a cost­ly false trail, F.B.I. agents inves­ti­gat­ing the dead­ly anthrax let­ters of 2001 final­ly zeroed in last year on a dif­fer­ent sus­pect: anoth­er Army sci­en­tist from the same biode­fense research cen­ter at Fort Det­rick in Fred­er­ick, Md.

Over the last 18 months, even as the gov­ern­ment bat­tled a law­suit filed by the first sci­en­tist, Steven J. Hat­fill, inves­ti­ga­tors built a case against the sec­ond one, Bruce E. Ivins, a high­ly respect­ed micro­bi­ol­o­gist who had worked for many years to design a bet­ter anthrax vac­cine.

Last week­end, after learn­ing that fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tors were prepar­ing to indict him on mur­der charges, Dr. Ivins, a 62-year-old father of two, took an over­dose of Tylenol with codeine. He died in a Fred­er­ick hos­pi­tal on Tues­day, leav­ing behind a griev­ing fam­i­ly and uncer­tain­ty about whether the anthrax mys­tery had final­ly been solved.

The appar­ent sui­cide of Dr. Ivins, a Red Cross vol­un­teer and ama­teur jug­gler who had won the Defense Department’s high­est civil­ian award in 2003, was a dra­mat­ic turn in one of the largest crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tions in the nation’s his­to­ry. The attack, the only major act of bioter­ror­ism on Amer­i­can soil, came in the jit­tery after­math of the Sept. 11 attacks. It killed five peo­ple, sick­ened 17 oth­ers and set off a wave of pan­ic.

In the ear­ly days after the let­ter attacks, in Sep­tem­ber and Octo­ber 2001, Dr. Ivins joined about 90 of his col­leagues at the Army Med­ical Research Insti­tute of Infec­tious Dis­eases in a round-the-clock lab­o­ra­to­ry push to test thou­sands of sam­ples of sus­pect pow­der to see if they were anthrax. Lat­er, in April 2002, he came under scruti­ny in an Army inves­ti­ga­tion of a leak of poten­tial­ly dead­ly anthrax spores out­side a sealed-off lab at Fort Det­rick. He lat­er admit­ted he had dis­cov­ered the leak but not report­ed it.

Whether the focus on Dr. Ivins had resolved the case of the anthrax let­ters was unclear. A fed­er­al law enforce­ment offi­cial said that Dr. Ivins had been regard­ed as a strong sus­pect and that agents had been near­ing an arrest, and a lawyer famil­iar with the inves­ti­ga­tion said he believed that pros­e­cu­tors had planned to charge only Dr. Ivins. The link between Dr. Ivins’s sui­cide and the fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tion was first report­ed on Fri­day in The Los Ange­les Times.

But the Fed­er­al Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion declined on Fri­day to make pub­lic its case against Dr. Ivins, not­ing that evi­dence was under court seal as part of a grand jury inves­ti­ga­tion. Offi­cials said they were brief­ing the vic­tims of the anthrax let­ters — those who recov­ered, as well as fam­i­ly mem­bers of those who died — and would need to go to court to have evi­dence unsealed before it could even be sum­ma­rized for the pub­lic.

A lawyer who had rep­re­sent­ed Dr. Ivins since May 2007, Paul F. Kemp, insist­ed that Dr. Ivins was inno­cent and had been dri­ven to sui­cide by false sus­pi­cions.

“For six years, Dr. Ivins ful­ly coop­er­at­ed with that inves­ti­ga­tion, assist­ing the gov­ern­ment in every way that was asked of him,” Mr. Kemp said in a writ­ten state­ment, call­ing the micro­bi­ol­o­gist “a world-renowned and high­ly dec­o­rat­ed sci­en­tist who served his coun­try for over 33 years with the Depart­ment of the Army.”

“We assert his inno­cence in these killings and would have estab­lished that at tri­al,” Mr. Kemp said. “The relent­less pres­sure of accu­sa­tion and innu­en­do takes its toll in dif­fer­ent ways on dif­fer­ent peo­ple, as has already been seen in this inves­ti­ga­tion.”

Mr. Kemp was clear­ly refer­ring to the case of Dr. Hat­fill, who was the focus of inten­sive F.B.I. and news media atten­tion in the case begin­ning in mid-2002 and received a $4.6 mil­lion set­tle­ment from the gov­ern­ment in June to set­tle a law­suit accus­ing the F.B.I. and the Jus­tice Depart­ment of destroy­ing his career and per­son­al life with leaks.

What­ev­er the cause of his sui­cide, Dr. Ivins had been behav­ing bizarrely in the weeks before his death. He was hos­pi­tal­ized briefly for depres­sion and, accord­ing to a com­plaint filed with the police, threat­ened to kill a social work­er who had treat­ed him in group ther­a­py, among oth­ers, in rants refer­ring to his expec­ta­tion that he would be charged with five counts of cap­i­tal mur­der.

“It’s out of char­ac­ter,” said Nor­man M. Covert, a for­mer spokesman and his­to­ri­an for the Army biode­fense cen­ter who served with Dr. Ivins on an ani­mal care com­mit­tee. “But if the F.B.I. was real­ly lean­ing on him, what a tremen­dous load that was on him.”

A spokesman for the Fred­er­ick police, Lt. Clark Pen­ning­ton, said he could not say whether Dr. Ivins had left a sui­cide note because the anthrax inves­ti­ga­tion remained open.

Inves­ti­ga­tors in the huge inquiry trav­eled to many coun­tries and by late 2006 had con­duct­ed 9,100 inter­views, sent out 6,000 grand jury sub­poe­nas and con­duct­ed 67 search­es, the F.B.I. said. But the prime focus steadi­ly nar­rowed: first to the Army infec­tious dis­eases lab­o­ra­to­ries, appar­ent­ly linked to the let­ters by genet­ic analy­sis, then to Dr. Hat­fill, a med­ical doc­tor who had become a bioter­ror­ism con­sul­tant, and final­ly to Dr. Ivins, who worked in the same build­ing as Dr. Hat­fill and lived two blocks away from him out­side the gates to Fort Det­rick.

Two puz­zles have haunt­ed inves­ti­ga­tors from the begin­ning: the motive of the per­pe­tra­tor and his skills. Because the notes in some of the let­ters mailed to news media orga­ni­za­tions and two sen­a­tors includ­ed rad­i­cal Islamist rhetoric, inves­ti­ga­tors ini­tial­ly believed the let­ters might have been sent by Al Qae­da.

But the F.B.I. quick­ly set­tled on a dif­fer­ent pro­file: a dis­grun­tled Amer­i­can sci­en­tist or tech­ni­cian, per­haps one spe­cial­iz­ing in biode­fense, who want­ed to raise an alarm about the bioter­ror­ism threat. That the­o­ry account­ed for the let­ters’ taped seams and the notes’ use of the word anthrax, a warn­ing that allowed antibi­ot­ic treat­ment — not to be expect­ed from a Qae­da attack intend­ed main­ly to kill.

That the­o­ry of a biode­fense insid­er placed many sci­en­tists at the infec­tious dis­eases insti­tute and oth­er lab­o­ra­to­ries under scruti­ny, even as they helped the F.B.I. ana­lyze the anthrax pow­der in the let­ters.

“The F.B.I. would be remiss not to look at us, espe­cial­ly those of us who worked with anthrax,” said John W. Ezzell, an anthrax researcher who hired Dr. Ivins at the insti­tute and knew him well. “We were all sub­ject­ed to lie detec­tor tests. We were all inter­viewed.”

Mr. Ezzell called Dr. Ivins “intense about his work, but a pop­u­lar guy.” Asked whether he was aware that Dr. Ivins had become a more seri­ous sus­pect, Mr. Ezzell declined to com­ment.

The oth­er puz­zle involved the skills nec­es­sary to pro­duce the high-qual­i­ty aerosol pow­der con­tained in the let­ters addressed to the sen­a­tors, Tom Daschle, Demo­c­rat of South Dako­ta, and Patrick J. Leahy, Demo­c­rat of Ver­mont.

Sci­en­tists famil­iar with germ war­fare said there was no evi­dence that Dr. Ivins, though a vac­cine expert with easy access to the most dan­ger­ous forms of anthrax, had the skills to turn the pathogen into an inhal­able pow­der.

“I don’t think a vac­cine spe­cial­ist could do it,” said Dr. Alan P. Zeli­coff, a physi­cian who aid­ed the F.B.I. inves­ti­ga­tion when he worked at the San­dia Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ries in Albu­querque.

“This is aerosol physics, not biol­o­gy,” Dr. Zeli­coff added. “There are very few peo­ple who have their feet in both camps.”

Mr. Ezzell said Dr. Ivins had worked on many projects involv­ing anthrax spores and the tox­in they pro­duce, includ­ing exper­i­ments in which ani­mals were exposed to anthrax to test vac­cines. But he said the exper­i­ments, to his knowl­edge, involved anthrax spores in l
iquid and not in the dry pow­der form used in the let­ter attacks.

By their own admis­sion, the F.B.I. and the Postal Inspec­tion Ser­vice had lit­tle exper­tise in bio­log­i­cal weapons in 2001, when they first loosed hun­dreds of agents on the inves­ti­ga­tion. Since then, at least 19 gov­ern­ment and uni­ver­si­ty lab­o­ra­to­ries have worked on the inves­ti­ga­tion, using clues like the genet­ic fin­ger­prints of the anthrax, and radioac­tive iso­topes in the water used to grow it, to try to trace it to a source.

The source, sev­er­al offi­cials said, was the infec­tious dis­eases insti­tute, where the trail led to just a hand­ful of vials in a sin­gle lab.

But the sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence, some of it found using new meth­ods, now may nev­er be test­ed in a crim­i­nal tri­al, leav­ing ques­tions about just how com­pelling it is.

“I would urge the bureau to pub­lish its evi­dence if it declares the case solved and closed,” said Dr. Claire Fras­er-Liggett, the for­mer direc­tor of the Insti­tute for Genom­ic Research, where the anthrax genome was decod­ed.

On Capi­tol Hill, where anthrax con­t­a­m­i­na­tion in 2001 led to the evac­u­a­tion of many offices, sev­er­al mem­bers of Con­gress voiced skep­ti­cism about reports that the hunt for the anthrax killer might be over.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Rush Holt, a Demo­c­rat whose dis­trict includes the Prince­ton, N.J., mail­box where inves­ti­ga­tors believe the let­ters were mailed, said the F.B.I. should pro­vide a full brief­ing.

“What we learn,” Mr. Holt said, “will not change the fact that this has been a poor­ly han­dled inves­ti­ga­tion that has last­ed six years and already has result­ed in a trail of embar­rass­ment and per­son­al tragedy.”

William J. Broad and Nicholas Wade con­tributed report­ing, and Jack Begg, Kit­ty Ben­nett and Bar­clay Walsh con­tributed research.

This arti­cle has been revised to reflect the fol­low­ing cor­rec­tion:

Cor­rec­tion: August 6, 2008
Because of an edit­ing error, an arti­cle on Sat­ur­day about the death of Bruce E. Ivins, a micro­bi­ol­o­gist who was being inves­ti­gat­ed in con­nec­tion with the 2001 anthrax attacks, misiden­ti­fied, in some copies, the par­ty affil­i­a­tion of Tom Daschle, a for­mer Sen­ate major­i­ty leader, and the state he rep­re­sent­ed. Mr. Daschle, who received a let­ter con­tain­ing anthrax in 2001, is a Demo­c­rat who rep­re­sent­ed South Dako­ta; he is not a Repub­li­can of Texas.


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