Hometown digging

Ivins' old neighbors questioned in anthrax case

August 03, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Lebanon, Ohio - Barbara Weisenfelder didn't believe the FBI agents for one minute. They had told the director of this village's historical museum that they had come all the way from Washington to interview residents as part of an insurance fraud investigation.

The agents said Bruce Ivins, 62, the youngest son of the town's long-deceased druggist, had faked his death. And they wanted to know everything about him and his family. They even inquired about the name of the architect and contractor who built the family's cream-colored, single-story home on Orchard Street in the 1930s.

"We knew who they were checking on, and that's all we needed to know," Weisenfelder, 77, said yesterday, recalling the agents' visits in 2007 and 2008.

She called up an Internet-savvy friend, who Googled Ivins' name. The search produced an October 2004 article from USA Today crediting Ivins with developing an anthrax vaccine. Weisenfelder said she "put two and two together" and then shared what she learned with other volunteer curators at the museum, a brick Colonial building that was once a gymnasium.

"I was very curious," Weisenfelder said. "Ever since, they've teased me at the museum that I helped the FBI solve the case."

Ivins, a resident of Frederick County, made headlines in recent days, apparently killing himself just as federal prosecutors were reportedly preparing to charge him in the 2001 anthrax attacks that left five people dead and an entire nation jittery. Until then, few people had heard of the award-winning scientist at Fort Detrick.

But for more than a year, a small group of elderly women who volunteer at the Warren County Museum - a collection of antiques and frontier artifacts - suspected that Ivins had played a role in the deadly anthrax attacks. As many as four agents - from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Postal Service - came to two of their regular Wednesday meetings asking lots of questions.

Had Ivins attended his father's funeral at the Presbyterian church? Had he kept in contact with any old classmates from Lebanon High School? Attended reunions? Could they see his old yearbooks? Where was his family's drug store? What was the family like? And was there a school or cemetery named Greendale?

"They asked the Greendale question repeatedly," said John J. Zimkus, Lebanon's historian. "I looked, and I couldn't find anything."

On Friday, Zimkus was watching the news and saw a federal official hold up copies of the ..the poisoned envelopes mailed to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy and Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle in 2001, amid the anthrax scare. The return address: "4th Grade. Greendale School."

"I didn't make the connection until then," Zimkus said.

Members of the Ivinses' immediate family hadn't lived in Lebanon since the early 1980s. According to Bruce Ivins' eldest brother, Tom Ivins, he came to town to move their father, T. Randall Ivins, to Maryland after he wrote a $10,000 check to a woman who had befriended him.

After completing his doctorate at the University of Cincinnati, Bruce Ivins is believed to have returned to the county seat of about 20,000 only to sell the house and attend his father's funeral.

Bruce Ivins' so seldom present that the "Memory Lane" columnist for the local weekly newspaper, The Western Star, once erroneously reported that he had died. The author corrected the error in a subsequent column.

Bruce Ivins' mother died in 1970. Tom Ivins said that Bruce was at her side in the hospital. Randall Ivins closed the drugstore soon thereafter, and Bruce sold the family home - which locals say his father had built to resemble a house he saw in France - in the mid-1980s.

The federal agents spoke to Mike McMurray, who owns the home where the Ivinses once lived and runs McMurray Frames and Gifts on the town's main thoroughfare, which is dotted with specialty shops and offices. McMurray's wife, Marilyn, was a year behind Ivins at Lebanon High School, where he graduated in 1964.

"They mostly asked a lot of questions we couldn't answer," such as the name of the architect who designed and the contractor who built the house, said Mike McMurray. "They wanted to know if they could have a look around. I said, 'Yes,' but they never did."

Mike McMurray met Bruce Ivins only once - when McMurray toured him and his wife through the picturesque home, surrounded by mansions, and showed them how to run the boiler. Marilyn remembers Bruce as a brilliant student. She said a photo from his high school yearbook, the Trilobite, shows a lean teenager smiling in front of his project on antibiotics at a science fair. "It didn't surprise me that he became a world-renowned scientist," Marilyn McMurray said.

The Ivins family had long and prominent roots in Lebanon, now a bedroom community of Cincinnati and Dayton.

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