Scientist's rooms searched again

Anthrax investigators focus on researcher who worked at Fort Detrick

August 02, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - Federal investigators conducted a second search yesterday of the Frederick apartment once occupied by Steven J. Hatfill, a former government scientist who has become a focus of the investigation into last fall's fatal anthrax attacks.

FBI and U.S. Postal Service agents, some wearing protective gloves, arrived at the Detrick Plaza Apartments at 8 a.m. and left just before 5 p.m. without making any public statement.

Investigators armed with a warrant also returned yesterday to an Ocala, Fla., storage facility where a unit rented by Hatfill was searched last fall. Reporters at the scene said the unit searched yesterday was not the same one searched before.

The three-story, brick apartment complex in Frederick is just outside the main gate to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, where Hatfill worked during the late 1990s.

Investigators arrived in as many as 10 unmarked, dark blue and tan sedans and SUVs bearing Washington, Virginia and Maryland license plates. Some agents wore blue and gold T-shirts marked "U.S. Postal Service Police."

They appeared to be searching both Hatfill's third-floor apartment and two large trash bins outside.

Before they left the apartment complex, agents could be seen loading something into a gray SUV and a white van.

An FBI spokeswoman at the bureau's Washington field office confirmed that the search was part of the government's anthrax investigation.

The Associated Press, citing unnamed government sources, said investigators were acting on a search warrant, but the FBI spokeswoman said she was unable to confirm that or to provide any further information about the search.

A June 25 search of the same apartment was conducted without a warrant but with Hatfill's permission. Agents at that time carried off several large trash bags, the contents of which were not disclosed.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III declined to make any comment about yesterday's search or any other "ongoing investigative activities."

But in response to questions Mueller said, "Yes, we're making progress in the case." He also said the bureau's profile of the likely perpetrator of the anthrax attacks has not changed: someone in the United States with experience in biological laboratories and expertise in handling dangerous biological substances.

Hatfill, 48, has never been charged or identified by investigators as a suspect in the anthrax probe, and he has explicitly denied having anything to do with the attacks.

He left Frederick after the June search and began work July 1 as associate director of Louisiana State University's National Center for Biomedical Research and Training. The center has a federal contract to train emergency personnel to handle bioterrorist attacks.

Hatfill could not be reached yesterday for comment. But his lawyer, Thomas C. Carter of Alexandria, Va., said Hatfill has done nothing wrong.

"He is one of many scientists who are undergoing the same scrutiny by the authorities, but for some reason, his name keeps popping up," Carter said in a phone interview with WJZ- TV. "But he's a patriot - he's going to continue to cooperate in every way."

Hatfill is one of 20 to 30 researchers questioned by investigators because they have the knowledge and skills that a bioterrorist would need to safely handle anthrax spores and carry out a successful attack, the FBI has said.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, who heads a biological weapons working group at the Federation of American Scientists and has been interviewed by investigators previously, said she was visited again yesterday in New York by two FBI agents asking questions about a scientist whom she did not want to identify publicly, but who clearly resembled Hatfill.

"They certainly wanted to keep talking about this person. On the other hand, they already know everything I know," she said. "They asked me what evidence I felt they should be pursuing, and why I thought it was taking so long" to solve the case.

The agents told her they were under intense pressure to solve the case before the anniversary date of the attacks, she said. The first anthrax letters were postmarked in mid-September last year.

"One of them said, `Every time my boss passes my desk he points to the calendar,'" Rosenberg said.

Hatfill is a physician with a doctoral degree in molecular cell biology. He has conducted research and training in bioterrorism. Like others in the field, he has been vaccinated against anthrax and has had access to labs where it is stored.

When he worked at Fort Detrick and at the National Institutes of Health, he spoke frequently about the bioterrorist threat, former colleagues say.

He later went to work for a defense contractor, Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) in McLean, Va., where he helped to create a mock bioterror laboratory for use in training U.S. Special Forces soldiers.

Hatfill lost that job this year and blamed news media inquiries in the wake of the anthrax investigation. The company said Hatfill was dismissed because he had lost his Defense Department security clearance last August and it had not been renewed six months later.

FBI officials, speaking on background, said last month that nothing incriminating was found in the June 25 search of Hatfill's apartment. But tests to detect anthrax spores had not been completed.

Five people, including two U.S. Postal Service employees, died last fall from inhalation anthrax after a number of letters containing anthrax spores were sent through the mail to media and government offices.

Sun staff writers Laura Sullivan and Childs Walker and the Ocala Star-Banner contributed to this article.

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