Plague scientist sentenced to 2 years

Missing vials caused bioterrorism scare

term dismays friends

March 11, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In a case that has drawn protests from leading scientists, a prominent plague researcher who touched off a brief bioterrorism scare last year when he reported germ vials missing was sentenced yesterday to two years in prison by a federal judge in Lubbock, Texas.

Dr. Thomas C. Butler, 62, was acquitted in a three-week trial of lying to the FBI about the missing vials and of most charges alleging that he mishandled plague samples. But he was convicted of 47 criminal counts, including theft, embezzlement and fraud in connection with consulting contracts.

Many prominent scientists had rallied to his defense, saying the prosecution was overkill and would discourage scientists from working on the pathogens most likely to be used by bioterrorists. They noted that Butler's recent work determined which antibiotics would be most effective in treating an attack using plague.

U.S. District Judge Sam Cummings fined Butler $15,000 and ordered him to pay restitution of about $38,000. He allowed him to remain free on bond but ordered him to report to federal authorities April 14.

Butler had earlier agreed to retire from the faculty of Texas Tech University, pay $250,000 to the university and surrender his medical license.

Before sentencing, Butler asked Cummings to spare him from prison.

"I'm deeply sorry this whole thing happened," he said. "At no time did I intend to break laws and mislead anyone."

Butler did not react to his sentence, but his daughter and friends in the gallery bent over to muffle their crying. Afterward, Butler hugged his wife, son and daughter.

Federal sentencing guidelines called for a sentence of 78 to 97 months. Cummings detailed the factors that prompted him to reduce the sentence to 24 months.

Supporters of Butler, who graduated from the Johns Hopkins University in 1962 and returned to Hopkins medical school for his residency, said any prison term is excessive.

"It certainly is a very sad day for American justice," said Dr. Peter C. Agre, a Hopkins physician and biochemist who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry. "I'm a loyal American, but when I hear my government has done something like this, I wonder who's in charge. Tom Butler is a fine person and does not deserve to go to prison."

Agre, one of four Nobel laureates who wrote a public appeal on behalf of Butler, noted in a telephone interview from Tokyo that there was no allegation of bioterrorism in the case. He said the fraud charges resulted from disputes between Butler and Texas Tech that should have been resolved outside court.

Another Hopkins friend of Butler's, Dr. William B. Greenough III, flew to Texas to testify on Butler's behalf at the sentencing. Other witnesses for Butler included his 22-year-old son, Tom Jr., and the son of a patient who praised Butler's attentive medical care.

Butler, a father of four, is considered one of the world's leading authorities on plague, and he had traveled frequently to Africa and Asia to collect samples, do research and consult with local doctors.

In January last year, he told a Texas Tech official that 30 vials of plague were missing from his lab. The university alerted the FBI, and 60 investigators rushed to the campus as CNN and other news media reported a bioterrorism scare.

After hours of interrogation by FBI agents, Butler signed a statement saying he had destroyed the vials, leading the FBI to charge him with lying. Butler later said he had been tricked into signing the statement and that he was unsure whether the vials were destroyed or missing.

In the ensuing months, prosecutors charged Butler with repeatedly violating tough new federal regulations on handling dangerous germs as he hand-carried plague samples to collaborators in federal labs, including the Army's biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Md.

They examined his consulting contracts with drug companies, the subject of a long-running dispute between Butler and Texas Tech, and added dozens of fraud charges to his indictment.

When he was convicted Dec. 1, a jury found him guilty of two charges related to the biosecurity regulations: unauthorized export of plague samples to Tanzania and of mislabeling the Federal Express package he used to send the vials.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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