Long under suspicion

The anthrax case

Suspect had been monitored for more than year

August 02, 2008|By Robert Little | Robert Little,Sun reporter

The Frederick County scientist who killed himself days before federal prosecutors reportedly planned to charge him with five murders related to the 2001 anthrax attacks had been under suspicion for more than a year and was recently accused of making "homicidal threats" as the pressure built and investigators closed in.

Bruce E. Ivins, a 62-year-old microbiologist who was part of an elite team of researchers at the U.S. Army's biochemical laboratory at Fort Detrick, was being linked to the same deadly mail-borne anthrax attacks that his lab helped to investigate. Justice Department prosecutors planned to seek the death penalty against Ivins, according to sources close to the case, and had convened a federal grand jury to hear evidence.

According to a neighbor, federal agents had been monitoring Ivins' house for a year.

Federal investigators disclosed few new details yesterday about their interest in Ivins, whose association with the anthrax case was first reported yesterday by the Los Angeles Times. Ivins' attorney released a statement declaring his client's innocence, blaming his suicide on the "relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo."

But details pieced together from court records, Army investigative reports and interviews with dozens of family members, colleagues and acquaintances paint a sketch of a respected, if rather intense scientist who seemed to unravel as prosecutors' intention to pursue a criminal case against him became clear.

Court records show that Ivins briefly entered Sheppard Pratt Services at Frederick Memorial Hospital, a 15-bed psychiatric unit, around July 10, less than three weeks before killing himself with an overdose of prescription-strength Tylenol and codeine.

Also around that time, he called Jean C. Duley, a social worker in Frederick, and left a threatening message, the records show. It was unclear yesterday what, if any, relationship existed between them.

On July 24, Duley sought a protective order against Ivins in Frederick County District Court, saying the scientist had a "history ... of homicidal threats, actions [and] plans." A judge granted the protective order, finding that Ivins had placed Duley "in fear of imminent serious bodily harm." The order was dismissed Thursday, two days after Ivins' death.

Duley also said in her handwritten petition that she was scheduled to testify yesterday before a federal grand jury and that she expected Ivins to be charged with five murders.

Even as they expressed doubt about his role in the anthrax attacks, colleagues described Ivins as a focused, often emotional scientist who didn't always respond well to pressure or criticism.

"There were times when he was not happy with the intensity of the discussion, sort of like, 'How can you question what I want to do here?' " said Norman Covert, a former public affairs director at Fort Detrick who served on a scientific committee with Ivins from 1999 through 2004.

His estranged brother, Tom Ivins, said Bruce often acted "omnipotent" because of his education, which included a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Cincinnati.

Yet Covert and other acquaintances also described Ivins as among the top scientific researchers in the specialty of biodefense and said they never found any reason to doubt his integrity. In 2003, Ivins shared the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest award for an Army civilian. He is co-author of an article on anthrax vaccination in the current issue of the journal Vaccine, one of the top scientific journals in the field.

"My jaw hit the table when I saw his name," said Alan Zelicoff, a biodefense expert and former senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories. "He was darn well respected in the field."

"I am totally aghast at this," Covert said, adding that he is "very distressed by it all, and curious about what the FBI thinks they have."

The 2001 mailings of letters laced with anthrax powder, delivered to news organizations in New York, a tabloid newspaper in Florida and congressional offices in Washington, killed five people, including two postal workers, a New York hospital worker, an elderly Connecticut woman and a photography editor. Seventeen people suffered illnesses related to anthrax exposure but recovered.

The federal investigation that ensued, which the FBI calls Amerithrax and characterizes as "one of the largest and most complex in the history of law enforcement," has resulted in more than 6,000 subpoenas but no arrests. The lab at Fort Detrick went into overdrive after the attack, developing anthrax vaccines as well as testing samples of powder sent from people throughout the country who believed, always mistakenly, they had been the target of another attack. Terrorism experts say the impact on the postal service and thinking about domestic terrorism has been profound.

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