The anthrax attacks killed five people and fueled terrorism fears in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bruce E. Ivins, 62, was a leading military anthrax researcher who worked for the past 18 years at the government’s elite biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md., the Associated Press reported on Friday. For years he worked to develop an anthrax vaccine that was effective even in cases where different strains of anthrax were mixed, according to federal documents.
U.S. officials told the AP that authorities were planning an indictment against Ivins that would have sought the death penalty for the attacks, which crippled the U.S. postal system. Besides the five people who were killed after receiving anthrax in the mail seven years ago, 17 people were sickened by the white powder, including staff in the offices of lawmakers on Capitol Hill and members of the news media in Florida and New York.
Ivins was reportedly aware of the Justice Department’s plans to file charges against him.
He died Tuesday at Fredrick Memorial Hospital in Maryland after taking a large dose of prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine, the Los Angeles Times reported after speaking with a source who asked for anonymity due to fears of retribution from the FBI.
It was only last month that the government fully cleared another scientist at the same lab, Steven Hatfill, who had been named publicly as a “person of interest” in the anthrax investigation. The government paid Hatfill $5.82 million to settle a lawsuit in which he contended he was falsely accused and had been made a scapegoat for the crimes.
After Hatfill was cleared, the pressure apparently increased on Ivins as the government began to interview his family and co-workers. The L.A. Times said that federal investigators had moved away from Hatfill and had focused their attention on Ivins after FBI Director Robert Mueller changed the leadership of the investigation in 2006.
Justice Department officials declined official comment on the case.
“We are not at this time making any official statements or comments regarding this situation,” said Debbie Weierman, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Washington field office, which is investigating the attacks.
According to the Washington Post, Paul F. Kemp, a Bethesda-based criminal defense lawyer who has represented Ivins for the past year, declined to comment, but issued a statement that confirmed the federal investigation.
“For more than a year, we have been privileged to represent Dr. Bruce Ivins during the investigation of the anthrax deaths of September and October of 2001,” Kemp said, according to the Post. “We assert his innocence in these killings, and would have established that at trial.”
Tom Ivins, one of the deceased scientist’s brothers, said that officials had interviewed him a year ago in connection with the anthrax investigation. “They said they were investigating him,” he told CNN from his home in Ohio.
Tom Ivins said that he never spoke to his brother about the interview, saying “I stay away from him.”
Ivins played keyboard at St. John the Evangalist Roman Catholic Church in Frederick, where parishioners gathered after morning Mass to pray for him Friday, the AP reported.
The Rev. Richard Murphy called Ivins “a quiet man. He was always very helpful and pleasant.”
According to an internal report obtained by media outlets, Bruce Ivins exhibited unusual behavior at Fort Detrick in the six months following the anthrax mailings; he conducted unauthorized testing for anthrax spores outside containment areas at the infectious disease research unit in which he worked.
In December 2001, Ivins conducted tests on a woman’s desk after she feared she had been contaminated. He found evidence of anthrax and proceeded to decontaminate her desk, computer, keypad and monitor. He failed, however, to notify his superiors of the incident, according to the report.
The L.A. Times reported that Ivins admitted he had kept secret for five months, from December 2001 to April 2002, instances in which he had cleaned areas he thought were contaminated by a sloppy lab technician.
“In retrospect, although my concern for biosafety was honest and my desire to refrain from crying ‘Wolf!’ . . . was sincere, I should have notified my supervisor ahead of time of my worries about a possible breach in biocontainment,” Ivins told the Army, according to the L.A. Times. “I thought that quietly and diligently cleaning the dirty desk area would both eliminate any possible [anthrax] contamination as well as prevent unintended anxiety at the institute.”
The Army, the L.A. Times reported, chose not to punish Ivins at the time.
The report further found that Ivins had performed unauthorized testing on April 15, 2002. Anthrax spores were found in his office and other areas of his work facility.
But Dr. W. Russell Byrne, a physician who worked with Ivins in the bacteriology division of the Fort Detrick facility for 15 years, told the AP that he did not believe that Ivins was behind the lethal mailings.
He called Ivins “eccentric,” but not dangerous.
Byrne said that Ivins was “hounded” by FBI agents who raided his house twice. He said Ivins was forcibly removed from his job recently by local police who claimed that he was a danger to himself and others. Byrne further stated that the investigation led to Ivins’ hospitalization for depression earlier this month.
Ivins was the co-author of several anthrax studies, including one on a treatment for inhalation anthrax published in the July 7 issue of the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.
“If he was about to be charged, no one who knew him well was aware of that, and I don’t believe it,” said Byrne.