Scientist in anthrax case had darker side

Took his own life as FBI closed in

Bruce E. Ivins, 62, an Army scientist, is being implicated in the mysterious fatal anthrax mailings case. Bruce E. Ivins, 62, an Army scientist, is being implicated in the mysterious fatal anthrax mailings case. (Frederick News Post via Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marilyn W. Thompson and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post / August 2, 2008

WASHINGTON - Nearly two years after anthrax-spore mailings killed five people and sickened 17 others, Army scientist Bruce E. Ivins accepted the Defense Department's highest honor for civilian performance for helping to resurrect a controversial vaccine that could protect against the deadly bacteria.

At a March 2003 ceremony, Ivins humbly described the award, which he received along with several colleagues, as unexpected. "Awards are nice. But the real satisfaction is knowing the vaccine is back online," he told a military publication.

Now, Ivins, 62, who the state chief medical examiner said died this week by suicide, is being implicated in a crime that has ranked as one of the FBI's biggest unsolved mysteries and most baffling technical cases. The shy, socially awkward anthrax scientist was on the verge of indictment in the anthrax-spore mailings case, according to officials familiar with the investigation, and killed himself with a drug overdose as the FBI ratcheted up the pressure against him. The anthrax-laced letters, officials said, may have been part of a plan to test his cure for the deadly toxin. The Justice Department said yesterday only that "substantial progress has been made in the investigation." The statement did not identify Ivins.

However, several US officials said prosecutors had been closing in on Ivins and planned to seek an indictment and the death penalty. Authorities were investigating whether Ivins, who had complained about the limits of testing anthrax drugs on animals, had released the toxin to test the treatment on humans. The officials all discussed the continuing investigation on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Ivins's attorney asserted the scientist's innocence and said he had cooperated with investigators for more than a year.

"We are saddened by his death, and disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to defend his good name and reputation in a court of law," said Paul F. Kemp.

Ivins died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland. The Los Angeles Times, which first reported the investigation, said the scientist had taken a massive dose of a prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine.

Kemp said his client's death was the result of the government's "relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo."

For more than a decade, Ivins had worked to develop an anthrax vaccine that was effective even in cases where different strains of anthrax were mixed - a situation that made vaccines ineffective - according to federal documents.

Among the small circle of scientists who worked with him, Ivins was solid, quiet, eccentric, even and a bit nerdy. But he also had a darker side, as suggested by court papers filed last month by Jean C. Duley, who asked a Frederick judge for a protective order against Ivins, saying he had repeatedly threatened her.

"Client has a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions, plans," the woman wrote in note attached to her request for protection. She said Ivins' psychiatrist had confided to her that the scientist was "homicidal, sociopathic with clear intentions." She also noted that she had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury about a capital murder case involving Ivins.

It was a far different Ivins from the one colleagues and neighbors knew. As a microbiologist at the Army's main lab for studying bioterror agents, Ivins labored for years on the development of anthrax vaccines and had access to various strains of the anthrax bacteria, including the one used in attacks on media outlets and congressional offices in the fall of 2001. Because of his expertise, he was even tapped by federal investigators to help with the technical analysis of the wispy powder used in the attacks.

"He always seemed on the edge - the kind of guy who might jump through the ceiling if you said 'boo' to him," said former colleague Richard O. Spertzel, who worked with Ivins at the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, at the Fort Detrick army base in Frederick, Md. "But he was a well respected scientist."

Ivins' profile increased after the anthrax mailings in October 2001, when the Fort Detrick labs went into a frenetic response to the crisis, testing suspicious mail and packages virtually around the clock. He was part of a response team that analyzed the handwritten letter sent to then senator Tom Daschle packed with Bacillus anthracis spores that matched the primary strain used in Fort Detrick research and had been used in the US biological weapons program until the 1970s.

There was concern that the letter had not been securely handled in the labs, and that some of the lethal spores might have escaped into the atmosphere. But because workers at Detrick who deal with anthrax are regularly vaccinated, there was no health issue.

In early 2002, without notifying his supervisors, Ivins began sampling suspicious areas in the Detrick lab space that he believed might be contaminated with anthrax. He took unauthorized samples from the laboratory containment areas and later acknowledged to Army officials this was a violation of protocol.

Ivins's odd behavior was detailed in an Army investigation, but his name never surfaced as a suspect in the mailings case.

"He was not on my radar," said a Senate source whose office was briefed on the FBI's progress.

He also never raised the suspicions of coworkers, many of whom remained convinced Ivins had nothing to do with the case.

"Almost everybody at 'RIID believes that he has absolutely nothing to do with Amerithrax," said a USAMRIID employee, referring to the FBI code name for the investigation. "The FBI has been hounding him mercilessly."

The constant scrutiny "really pushed this poor guy to the edge," the employee said, and noted that his colleagues were upset at the way Ivins had been treated.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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