Answers in anthrax case may have died with suicide
By ADAM GELLER,
AP National Writer
Fri Aug 1, 2008
It's been nearly seven years, but folks in Oxford, Conn., still remember the workers in hazmat suits, scouring the pews of Immanuel Lutheran Church for unseen spores of anthrax. They remember lining up to be tested for the toxin, and being afraid to open their mail. They remember 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren — a church-going widow, long-retired legal secretary and a bioterrorist's most unlikely victim."Something like that you never really get over," Thomas Condon, a friend of Lundgren's, said Friday. "It always stays in your memory." For the rest of us, the years between then and now have made it easy to forget the dread and terror that seized the nation during the anthrax-by-mail attacks, and to lose track of the frustrated investigation that long failed to solve them
On Friday, all those memories came flooding back. After years of futility, investigators said they had been preparing to charge a government scientist, Bruce E. Ivins, with hatching the plot, before he committed suicide this week. The final answers may well have died with him. When the anthrax attacks began, smoke was still rising from the charred pit of the World Trade Center. U.S. jet fighters moved into position, ready to unleash their bombs on Afghanistan's defiant regime.Any moment now, Americans told each other, the terrorists might well act again. Nobody could say where or when or, most ominously, how. Still, when a Florida photographer, Bob Stevens, died of inhaled anthrax on Oct. 5, 2001, it captured relatively little notice and stirred more sorrow than fear. Then one of Stevens' co-workers was diagnosed. And another.Days later, an assistant at the New York offices of NBC News was diagnosed. Investigators traced it to the powder contained in a mysterious letter. It was postmarked Sept. 18 and, in what would become a familiar detail, dispatched from a mailbox in the tidy downtown of Princeton, N.J.
Soon after, a similar letter, also pre-stamped and without any return address, arrived at the Capitol Hill offices of the Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Inside, a worker found the same powder and a chilling message. "You're going to die," it read. Even before the first report of anthrax, post-9/11 worries had sent a book on germ warfare up to the No. 2 spot on Amazon.com's list of best-sellers. Now the hypothetical bioterror threat was becoming real. "I could probably drop a package of Sweet n' Low and evacuate this building," a Florida county official, Ken Pineau, said at the time. At some Army-Navy stores, clerks imposed limits on how many gas masks a single customer could buy. At pharmacies, sales of ciprofloxacin — the antibiotic used to combat anthrax — multiplied by 10. "In Cipro we trust," a solemn Tom Brokaw told his "NBC Nightly News" audience.
By November 2001, five people were dead — Ottilie Lundgren the last among them — and 17 others were sickened. Workers in bubble suits decontaminated federal office buildings in Washington after anthrax letters were discovered there. The attacks shut some postal substations for years. Who would do this? The letter to Daschle hailed Allah, and speculation focused on Arab terrorists. The first victim, it was noted, lived in Lantana, Fla. near an airfield where 9/11 terrorist Mohamed Atta rented planes. Perhaps that was the key. But there was no evidence to back that up, and hoaxes did not clarify the situation. Letters containing white powder were sent to scores of Planned Parenthood clinics, fueling conjecture that the plot was the work of far-right zealots.
But investigators who analyzed the anthrax dismissed both ideas. The toxin was a sophisticated form, carefully manufactured by someone who was highly skilled. By the early months of 2002, investigators were zeroing in on 20 to 30 scientists they said had both the knowledge and opportunity to send the anthrax letters. The only name that surfaced: Steven J. Hatfill, a biowarfare expert who had worked at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. Federal officials repeatedly identified him as a "person of interest." By August of that year, it was clear Hatfill was the prime suspect. FBI agents wearing protective gloves searched his apartment and a storage locker. They found no trace of anthrax. "I want to look my fellow Americans directly in the eye and declare to them, 'I am not the anthrax killer," Hatfill said. "I know nothing about the anthrax attacks. I had absolutely nothing to do with this horrible crime."
But the investigation continued to focus on him. In June 2003, investigators drained 1.45 million gallons of water from a pond eight miles from Fort Detrick. The drastic step came after divers found a plastic box with two holes cut into it that some investigators theorized could have been used to safely fill envelopes with deadly anthrax spores. The pond produced a gun, a bicycle and fishing lures — but no further evidence. Later that summer, Hatfill sued the Attorney General John Ashcroft and other federal officials, accusing them of turning him into a scapegoat. The investigation ebbed and flowed, with little outward sign of progress. In 2006, the FBI changed the leadership of the team investigating the attacks. It's not clear when their attention turned to Ivins.
The microbiologist had briefly been the subject of some controversy in late 2001, when Army internal reports showed he decontaminated an area of Fort Detrick lab's for anthrax without reporting it to his superiors. Ivins apologized and was not disciplined. In fact, he was praised. In 2003, he shared the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest honor given to civilians Defense Department employees, for his work on a vaccine for anthrax. Years later, investigators turned their attention from Hatfill to him. They interviewed the latter man's family and colleagues, developing a picture of a man both brilliant and emotionally unstable. Maryland court documents show he recently received psychiatric treatment and was ordered to stay away from a woman he was accused of stalking and threatening to kill. Friends said he knew the FBI was on his tail and that he felt hounded. Investigators raided his home twice. Agents in cars with tinted windows conducted regular surveillance.
In late June, the Justice Department settled its suit with Hatfill, agreeing to pay him $5.8 million — and, at least in the public perception, exoneration. About two weeks later, police were called to Fort Detrick to speak with Ivins. He was taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation because of concern he was a danger to himself or others. He was eventually released. This past Tuesday, he committed suicide at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland. His lawyer blamed the death on the government's "relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo." The scientist's death brought back memories of the terror visited by the anthrax attacks, but leaves many questions unanswered. "I think the FBI owes us a complete accounting of their investigation and ought to be able to tell us at some point, how we're going to bring this to closure," Daschle told The Associated Press.
"It's been seven years, there's a lot of unanswered questions," he said, "and I think the American people deserve to know more than they do today."