The Bruce Ivins I Knew
Some of his former colleagues at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) remember Ivins as a goofball scientist and practical joker, but one former grad school colleague saw what she describes as Ivins’ “dark side.” Here are excerpts from their FRONTLINE interviews.
Col. W. Russell Byrne, M.D., USAMRIID
I would have met him sometime in April 1993. …
My first real encounter with Bruce was kind of indirect, when he [complained] about the first animal protocol with plague that I had run. He described it as a runaway train. …
You risk your life every time you walk into the BSL-3 suites. And it’s not just what you do that can get you into trouble. If somebody else doesn’t run an experiment right, if you walk into a lab or somebody’s vortexing a specimen or something that could be aerosolized, people want to know about that because they can inhale them.
I had this experiment going and I forget what his specific complaint was, but … I remember thinking he was pretty intense.
And then as I got to know him, he had a hair-trigger sense of humor. I could kid him about practically anything, and he’d find a way to keep the joke going. That’s the kind of person that I knew.
Like what kind of joke?
His lunches were kind of bizarre, but I don’t remember exactly what was in it.
I remember him juggling. This was in the division office and the secretary’s desk is there, and she’s behind it. And my office is a little office right next to it, there’s a door right there. And he starts juggling in front of it. Then he gets down and he ends up juggling on this back. …
To me he was much more of a kind of a Dick Van Dyke character. He saw things as being funny a lot of the time. And he also knew that he was funny. He also knew that he was comical. That’s the person I knew.
He cared a lot about his work. … He ran down details. He checked things out. He took things very seriously.
That was his reputation in general?
That was my experience with him. I can’t say that’s what everybody thought. I just don’t know. I never had any complaints about him while I was the chief. …
You describe a guy who has a humor trigger. Did he also have a temper trigger?
No, I never saw him angry. He was very intense at certain times. I never saw him angry. …
How did he show his intensity?
He would speak faster, and he would just look more intense. It wouldn’t be the smiling kind of joking guy. I think he always spoke pretty rapidly. He would speak more rapidly. And maybe because I was not only his boss, I wouldn’t see a more intense side than that. But that’s what I did see. …
You belong to his church. How involved was he?
… He was the music director for the 9:00 Mass. … He referred to it as the hippie Mass. And other people referred to it as the happy-clappy Mass.
It was very energetic. His wife sang. … I enjoyed it a lot. He would get people clapping and going along with it, and you could see people kind of moving from side to side. This was usually on the last song. He would bring in these old Negro spirituals or something like that. He always kind of fired things up at the end. And I really enjoyed that. …
Was the Bruce Ivins that the FBI described during the press conference [after his death] the same Bruce Ivins you knew?
They seemed to harp on he was a loner. He was not a loner. …. He had a lot of friends. The first-year anniversary and the second year anniversary of his death, 20 or 30 people got together from the division. He was not a loner. He might have been a gregarious introvert maybe, but he was very outgoing. …
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Adamovicz, Ph.D., USAMRIID
I became Bruce’s boss in 2001 when I became the deputy division chief, and I supervised Bruce for a time, for a couple of years. And then I became the chief of the division. Then I no longer supervised him directly.
But he was a pleasure to work with. He’s a somewhat animated, very eccentric person. But he was a very productive scientist. In matters of discussion about science, I listened very closely to what Bruce had to say. He was a key person in the field, and he was well respected by everybody in the lab.
At the same time, of course Bruce had kind of a quirky personality that would put some people off at times. But my interactions with him were always good, whether I was his supervisor or not. Whether in the work setting or in a social setting, I always enjoyed being around Bruce. …
What do you mean by quirky nature?
Bruce is probably antithetical to the typical scientist personality, in a sense that Bruce is playful. He likes to tell jokes. He likes to talk to people. He would keep candy in his office to entice people to come into the office so he could talk.
He enjoyed following weather patterns and weather systems and discussing it in the morning, you know what the weather was going to be that day.
He juggled. He played musical instruments. He played the guitar. He wrote poems for people when they left the institute, or if there was a special occasion, such as a Christmas party, that sort of thing.
But he was a very outgoing sort of guy. He didn’t care about very materialistic things. He didn’t dress well. He didn’t drive a nice car. He didn’t focus or talk about money at all. So he was a different person.
Did the quirkiness go beyond what people would expect, so that some people wondered whether he was emotionally stable or not?
Answering a question about Bruce’s emotional stability is very difficult because I think there were probably changes in Bruce’s personality over time.
When I met Bruce in 1995, he was a person that you wouldn’t think of as having emotional problems. Sometime after 9/11 I think Bruce began to change in certain ways, in the sense that as the pressure at the institute increased to deal with these attacks and to deal with the samples that were coming in, I think that that was a source of stress for Bruce and for all of us.
Clearly though his personality fundamentally changed I would say along about 2006, after he became the quote unquote, prime suspect, and it was clear that the FBI was focusing on him. He did not deal with that stress very well at all. …
In the early days, did he have a temper?
I never saw Bruce exhibit any forms of temper, temperament or anger. … He would speak in a very animated way about certain topics. But I never saw him display anger.
In fact, one of the things that I was proud of Bruce is that we had a problem employee in the institute, and this was an employee who would put his hands on people and was a very aggressive personality. He had shoved Bruce up against a filing cabinet one day. And Bruce came and told me about it, but he didn’t really want to make a big deal out of it. Clearly he wasn’t the type of person to engage any kind of physical altercation. He wasn’t aggressive in his personality. …
Did Bruce show signs of being afraid of the FBI?
Bruce was very afraid of the FBI. … I believe they knew that this was having an adverse effect on him. But it was in their minds the desired effect. …
Bruce and I had several conversations about the stress he was feeling. This was around late 2006, early 2007. I advised him to seek legal help, because it was clear to me that this was something more than routine at this point. And Bruce did retain a lawyer. …
Bruce clearly felt you know a lot of stress and anxiety over the FBI. In fact he had mentioned to me one time that “It doesn’t matter whether I did it nor, they’re going to convict me of it.” That’s the kind of thoughts that were probably going through Bruce’s head at the time. …
Some say that Bruce was just a really good liar. What are your thoughts?
Do we ever really know somebody completely? It’s possible. Bruce could have been the master deceiver. Although knowing him personally I can’t imagine how he could pull that off. Bruce didn’t seem to be capable of deceiving people, because he was too outgoing. In other words, if you wanted a secret to get spread across the institute, you told the secret to Bruce. And you told him specifically to keep it a secret. And sure enough, it would get out, because Bruce couldn’t keep a secret.
So there’s this juxtaposition between how this FBI represents Bruce as this clever mastermind, manipulating liar, and the person that we knew that couldn’t keep a secret. They’re not the same person. And again, I’m still firmly held in my belief that he had nothing to do with this.
Henry Heine, Ph.D. USAMRIID
Bruce was one of the senior scientists in the Division of Bacteriology at USAMRIID when I arrived in December 1998. … Bruce was just wonderful right from day one.
Bruce, I would consider one of the godfathers in this area. And so here you have somebody, and you’re new, and he comes in and says: “Anything you need, if you need some help from me, ask me. I can help you out in anyway whatsoever.” Just invited me into his world as it were.
He was a very congenial scientist. Very smart, brilliant. Really knew his science and very dedicated. And at the same time also very dedicated to mentoring and helping out new scientists, young scientists coming in. …
The Bruce Ivins that’s been described by the FBI and so forth, I never met that person. And I would hope I never do. The person that I knew was a good scientist, and then as the years went by developed also into what I would like to believe was a good friendship.
You mentioned that you guys would go up to your cabin. …
We kind of tongue-in-cheek always described those as “bacteriology militia weekends.” We would go up to my place in West Virginia, usually get up there late on a Friday evening. First thing obviously is we’d go out and hit the local bar, then come back to the cabin, sleep it off.
And then the next morning — after everybody was sober, because I have very, very strict rules about alcohol and firearms — we’d do a lot of shooting. We had a small target range set up there. And everybody could bring up whatever they had and do a little target practicing, something that’s kind of hard to do down in the metropolitan areas.
I don’t really believe that Bruce had any guns until he started doing that with us. Because the first time he came up he didn’t have any, and he was of course using everybody else’s. Then on subsequent trips he started showing up with his own, and they were brand-new guns.
He was a terrible shot. We used to joke with him, and again when he wasn’t present, about how he couldn’t hit the side of a barn if he was standing right next to it. He didn’t know how to shoot properly. We tried to work with him on it, but he wasn’t very proficient with firearms at all. …
Did he ever talk about women or his obsession with the sorority?
Never heard them as obsessions the way they were presented. I did hear the story which is the foundation for all this, which was that when he was an undergraduate he had gone to a party with a young lady who was a member of that particular sorority as it turned out. And after a period of time she kind of excused herself to go to the bathroom or something, and then never came back. …
Where did you hear that story?
That was from Bruce.
Why would Bruce bring it up?
I don’t even remember the context for it. I don’t remember the exact date and time, but I remember where it was. It was in what was referred to as the CAC, the Community Activity Center there on Fort Detrick, which was a favorite place for us all to go after work at least once a week.
And I can remember we were all sitting around the table probably telling war stories from college is what I think the context was. And that was his college war story.
Did he seem to talk about the sorority in any way, either in respectful ways or in anger?
No, he just mentioned that she had been in a sorority. Didn’t even mention which sorority it was, just mentioned sorority. Again, I can’t recall all the specifics of it except that I do know we were kind of telling war stories: “I was in a fraternity; my wife was in a sorority.” So I think it probably all kind of centered around those kind of stories, that “Oh yeah, you know, I dated somebody in this sorority,” and so forth.
So Bruce’s contribution was, “Well, I went out with this one girl and she left me,” kind of thing. And that was the end of it.
Nancy Haigwood, Ph.D. Graduate school colleague
I went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and when I met Bruce and his wife, I was a graduate student and he was a new postdoc who had just arrived to work with Dr. Priscilla Wyrick.
I met him casually, as all new people do, just dropped by the lab, “Hi, how you doing? Welcome,” that kind of thing. I had a casual friendship with him that’s typical of scientists from different laboratories.
What was he like?
He was a high-energy guy, very interested in engaging with other people. Seemed quite interested in his science. And a serious scientist, but with a fun streak to him.
His reputation at that point of the work that he was doing, the kind of intellect he had and such?
Oh, certainly very bright. I didn’t know much about it because I was studying something quite different from what his area was, so I wasn’t that familiar with the specifics. But certainly the caliber of students and fellows at UNC at that time was quite good and still is. And he seemed to fit in scientifically.
He was a little bit of an odd duck, though. That showed up in a few more months, in that he was persistently friendly in a way that scientists typically are not. We tend to be pretty contained within our own little scientific issue and typically within our own laboratories.
But he was different. How? How did it show up?
It’s so hard to describe. I know I’ve talked about this over the years. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was a little too persistent. It was just a little bit odd. It seemed as though Bruce wanted more attention than he was getting.
So what kind of interactions would you have with him? … Did you work together? …
No, we never worked together. Again, this is a very casual, sort of drop-by-the-lab kind of “Hi, how you doing?” type of interaction. Probably it must have been four years. I believe I was in graduate school about five years, and he arrived and left during that time. So the specific dates I don’t remember exactly, but I believe he certainly left Chapel Hill before I did.
… What was the nature of what he wanted out of the relationship with you?
I think he was generally looking for friends at UNC, but he specifically seems to have latched onto me because of my association with Kappa Kappa Gamma, which was my sorority in college. And it’s actually called a fraternity, but it is a sorority. And KKG, or Kappa Kappa Gamma, was a sorority that Bruce had developed a strong interest in.
His whole demeanor kind of lit up when he found out I was a KKG person. I happened to be also the faculty or graduate mentor to the chapter at Chapel Hill at that time, so I was still involved in Kappa Kappa Gamma while I was a graduate student.
He seemed to take an inordinate interest in it, and I remember at one point saying: “Bruce, this is just way beyond the bounds. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” But later, of course, it came out that he had a longstanding interest in Kappa Kappa Gamma where he had gone to college, and seemed to have retained what appears to have been kind of an obsession with the Kappas.
I have no idea. There’s been speculation, but I really don’t know.
What kind of things would he want to talk about?
Oh, he wanted to know what’s the secret cipher, and can you talk more about it? What was it like? What was your chapter like? He seemed to just want to drill down and kind of get into the specifics, which are irrelevant, in my view, to any man, let alone any woman who’s not in that particular sorority. It’s a wonderful way to get to know other women, and we had a few secret rituals, and that was a fun thing to do in college. And I certainly value my Kappa sisters and my experience there, but it’s not something I would ever share. And he seemed to just to be wanting to be very intrusive.
So his interest in you in a relationship was not romantic.
Oh, not at all.
It was almost more to find out information about the sorority.
I think so. I mean, I’m a pretty friendly person. People will tell you that I have been my whole life. So I was probably on the friendlier side of a typical scientist. And it came to be that very few other people were friends at all with Bruce, and I continued to be friendly. But that’s it.
Why did he have a problem finding other friends?
I think he had just unusual personality traits. Again, it’s very hard to describe, but Bruce could be very annoying.
Can you tell me how he was annoying?
I think that one word that comes to mind is obsequious. He tended to be just wanting to garner praise and wanting to overdo conversations in a way that just — people just eventually were turned off by that. …
The way it’s been reported is this obsession with you became bigger and bigger and lasted many, many years. What’s your take on it? The psychological report basically says that you became a defining character in his life.
It was always puzzling to me. He seemed to maintain regular contact. By that I mean the yearly sort of Christmas card-level-type of contact over the years. And yet, at the same time, there were some very disturbing incidents that happened to me in graduate school and when I had my first job in Maryland — one in Chapel Hill and one in Maryland.
Both of these events were very disturbing. I’ll describe them to you. But I was suspicious that there was no one else who would have done anything like that to me except for Bruce. Bruce was the only oddball in my life. And I confronted him about these events, and he denied having done them. And later I learned from the FBI that he in fact had been the perpetrator.
One of them is the attack on your fiancé’s home.
Yes. I came home from work one day to discover that the fence outside our home and the car that belonged to my fiancé had been spray-painted with red paint, with “Kappa Kappa Gamma.” And of course, when I saw “Kappa Kappa Gamma,” my first thought was, this has to be Bruce Ivins. …
We reported it to the police right away, and they asked us who might have done this, and I said that I suspected that a former colleague of mine from graduate school might have been the person involved. I don’t think there was ever an investigation about that. There certainly was no conviction of any kind.
What do you think triggered it?
Desire for attention? I think Bruce wanted to let me know he was in the area, which I did know. He was working at Frederick at the time, and this was in Gaithersburg, Md. That certainly brought my attention to the fact that he was close by. And the way that it was done was very meticulous, which is also not the way someone who is simply out on a prank might do it. In other words, the spray paint on the back window of the Honda sedan was done in such a way that there was no extra paint; it was clearly on the glass so that it could be easily repaired, scraped off. So there was no actual long-term damage, just an annoyance.
And that intrusive kind of “I can do this to you” kind of thing is what started to make me uncomfortable.
When had been the last time you had talked to him? How long had it been since you’d had correspondence?
This was many years ago. I don’t remember exactly. But again, this is about a once-a-year type of discussion that I may have had with him, or exchanged family letters and things like that.
There were two other incidents that happened around that time that caused me to be in touch with Bruce. One was someone impersonated me writing a letter to the Frederick newspaper, signing my name to it, and it was about hazing in fraternities, especially in my sorority.
It was written in such a way that — well, of course I didn’t write the letter. Someone brought it to my attention, said, “Oh, I saw your letter.” And I said: “I didn’t write a letter. Show me. Show it to me.”
I called the Frederick Post, I think was the name of the paper, and they apologized. They said, “Well, we don’t check letters to the editor.” So I called Bruce at that point and said: “I think you did this, and I don’t appreciate it. Stop it.” And he denied it.
But at that point, I was very irritated. I don’t actually remember which occurred first, the newspaper event or the fence and car damage.
Did you cut off your relationship with him at that point?
Oh, yes. As far as I know, I never reached out to him. Now, Bruce was the kind of person who reached out to all kinds of people all the time, and he managed to find out where I was and continued to contact me over the years. I kept an absolutely arm’s-length, at least, approach from then on.
Yes, it was very creepy. And I haven’t described the first incident, which happened while I was there ending graduate school. This is a very intense time for a graduate student, because every single piece of data is critically important to one’s dissertation. I was working night and day.
I came in one day, and my laboratory notebook was gone. This is the only copy of my data. It was completely missing from the lab, and I was in a total panic.
And I went home and received a letter in the mail from I didn’t know who, saying that the notebooks had been taken and that they could be found in the bottom of a post office box in Chapel Hill. It’s a tiny town; there’s only one main post office box.
And I contacted the post office. This was like a Friday, so I had to wait till like a Monday. But at any rate, the authorities helped me out. The Chapel Hill police helped me out. And indeed, the notebook was in the bottom of the post office box.
This was, in my view, in retrospect, Bruce’s first use of the post office.
So you immediately thought again it was Bruce.
Well, this was the first time anything had happened to me, to my knowledge, and I really was quite puzzled. And I remember talking to everyone: Does anybody have any idea who this might have been? And Bruce was not living in North Carolina at that time, so I thought, you know, the one kook I know is Bruce, but he’s not here. Well, again, it turns out later, he has a brother living nearby. He did do it. I didn’t know that till after he died.
It seems like the antics of a lovelorn individual who just maybe thinks it’s almost funny.
It wasn’t the least bit funny. It was intended to be frightening, and it was. And there was no love situation whatsoever.
What do you think it says about him?
I think this is someone — again, this is years of thinking about this — who felt very superior and underappreciated. I’m not a psychologist, but this is the kind of behavior that it looks like to me, who wanted desperately to get attention, especially from people whom he says he admired. He did get my attention, but he did not get my admiration. And that must have frustrated him.
But I also think there was a dark side to this where he saw that he could get away with these things. And then he realized he felt omnipotent and able to do all kinds of things, and I think he moved on from there.
Paul Kemp Bruce Ivins’ attorney
Describe Bruce Ivins. The first time you meet him, what are your impressions?
He’s geeky, professorial, biochemist, quirky guy. Had on running shoes, but khaki pants. He’s sort of the opposite of me. I was a jock when I went through college. And he, I’m sure, was in a science club and did all the kinds of things that people who have Ph.D.s in biochemistry do.
He obviously was extremely knowledgeable, was proud of his work with the Army, was proud that he’d received an award from the Department of the Army and the Defense Department in 2003.
Seemed to be helpful. Never refused to answer one of my questions. Never refused to answer one of their questions. Never said, “Hold on, I need to talk to my lawyer” in the presence of them. I, at some point, said, “I’d like to take a break now and go talk to you about a couple of things.” But he never did. And he was always like, “Let’s keep going, let’s get to the end of this. Let’s try and help them.”
So he was helpful. He was quirky. He had a crew cut. He had gray hair and it was in a crew cut, and glasses. Clearly was not a man of the world kind of thing, sort of the opposite, just a kind of person that falls into a stereotype of a scientist biochemist who never leaves the laboratory.
Over time, as the pressure grows from the FBI and the investigation, as it’s becoming apparent that he is being looked at more and more, how does he deal with the pressure?
I think he begins drinking more, and so much so that he ends up receiving a month of treatment at a Maryland state hospital in Cumberland for drinking too much.
Then he’s angry that they are focusing on him. This is after the search warrants are executed and they kind of cart him and his wife and children away, out of their homes. They execute search warrants at his house, for his cars, at the daughter’s apartment, everywhere. And freeze-wrap his cars and cart them away, so that all the neighbors see this. They have people in there in white spacesuits, essentially, looking for any hint of anthrax.
He was angry that his integrity was being challenged, and … felt that he wanted to try and get to a judge, or get to court, or to do something. And I said, “Well, there’s no charges pending. I’m hopeful there’s not going to be any charges pending. We just have to ride this out. This is a difficult thing, I understand that, but try and hang on.”
And he had a hard time, and I think he turned to alcohol. I know he did.
How was his emotional stability?
He was concerned. He contacted me more frequently through the spring of 2008. I was relieved when he went out to the hospital in Cumberland and was there for 28 days. And when he came out, I think things were OK. He had not lost his privileges to go to Fort Detrick. He was still being allowed in. I think that was important to him.
He was set to retire in August 2008, after a long career with the Department of the Army. And he wanted to get to that and retire with honor. Obviously that didn’t happen.