Doubts persist that troubled scientist was anthrax killer
Bruce Ivins' suicide last July means a definitive outcome may never be possible in the deaths of five people.
The New York Times
FREDERICK, Md. — Inside the Army laboratory at Fort Detrick, the government's brain for biological defense, Bruce Edwards Ivins paused to memorialize his moment in the spotlight as the anthrax panic of 2001 reached its peak.
Ivins titled his e-mail "In the lab" and attached photographs: the gaunt microbiologist bending over Petri dishes of anthrax and colonies of the deadly bacteria, white commas against blood-red nutrient.
Outside, on Nov. 14, 2001, five people were dead or dying, a dozen more were sick and fearful thousands were flooding emergency rooms. The postal system was crippled; senators and Supreme Court justices had fled contaminated offices. And the FBI was struggling with a crime scene that stretched from New York to Florida.
But Ivins was chipper, the anonymous scientist finally at the center of great events. "Hi, all," he began the e-mail. "We were taking some photos today of blood agar cultures of the now infamous 'Ames' strain of Bacillus anthracis. Here are a few."
He sent the message to those who ordinarily received his corny jokes and dour news commentaries: his wife and two teenage children, former colleagues and high-school classmates. He included an FBI agent working on the case.
Ivins, who had helped develop an anthrax vaccine to protect U.S. troops, had spent his career waiting for a biological attack. Suddenly, at 55, he was advising the FBI and regaling friends with scary descriptions of the deadly powder, his expertise in demand.
One recipient of his e-mail, however, a graduate-school colleague, looked at the photograph of Ivins and leapt to a shocking conclusion.
"I read that e-mail, and I thought, 'He did it,' " the fellow scientist, Nancy Haigwood, said in a recent interview.
A strong hunch
Nearly seven years and many millions of dollars later, the FBI concluded Haigwood had been right: the anthrax killer had been at the investigators' side all along. Prosecutors said they believed they had the evidence to prove Ivins alone carried out the attacks, but their assertions met with skepticism among some scientists, lawmakers and co-workers of Ivins.
With the FBI preparing to close the case, The New York Times reviewed the investigation, interviewing dozens of Ivins' colleagues and friends, reading hundreds of his e-mails, and obtaining, for the first time, police reports on his suicide in July.
That examination found that unless new evidence were to surface, the public investment in the case would appear to have yielded nothing more persuasive than a strong hunch, based on a pattern of damning circumstances, that Ivins was the perpetrator.
Focused for years on the wrong man, the FBI missed ample clues that Ivins deserved a closer look. Only after a change of leadership five years after the attacks did the FBI more fully look into Ivins' activities. That delay and his death may have put a more definitive outcome out of reach.
Brad Garrett, a respected FBI veteran who helped early in the case before his retirement, said logic and evidence point to Ivins as the most likely perpetrator. "Does that absolutely prove he did it? No," Garrett said. With no confession and no trial, he said, "you're going to be left not getting over the top of the mountain."
The review found that the FBI had disproved the assertion, widespread among scientists who believe Ivins was innocent, that the anthrax might have come from military and research programs in Utah or Ohio. By 2004, secret scientific testing established that the mailed anthrax had been grown near Fort Detrick.
Anthrax specialists who have not spoken out previously said that, contrary to some skeptics' claims, Ivins had the equipment and expertise to make the powder in his laboratory.
FBI agents, moreover, have shown that Ivins, a church musician and amateur juggler, hid from colleagues a shadow side of mental illness, alcoholism, secret obsessions and hints of violence.
Still, doubts persist. The case will be reviewed this year by the National Academy of Sciences and by Congress. If the FBI is wrong, a troubled man was hounded to death and the anthrax perpetrator is at large, as many of Ivins' colleagues at Fort Detrick believe.
He was a bright spot
In 21 years at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Ivins supplied Hershey's Kisses to office visitors and always showed concern when a colleague was ill. He toasted departing colleagues with humorous poems. He livened up parties with his juggling act and led songs from a portable keyboard at his Roman Catholic church.
Colleagues knew Ivins, whose e-mail Christmas card one year spelled out "Happy Holidays" in anthrax spores, was an oddball, wearing outmoded bell-bottoms and lunching on concoctions of tuna, peas and yogurt. But in a place where red tape and petty rivalry often darkened spirits, he was a bright spot.
"He actually thought of other people," said Melanie Ulrich, who worked with him on an anthrax project and invited him to the house she shared with her husband, Ricky Ulrich, also an Army scientist. "He was fun."
In the emotional days after Sept. 11, friends were not surprised when Ivins signed up as a Red Cross volunteer. He liked the atmosphere, he told friends, and three months later, as the crushing workload created by the anthrax letters began to ease, he applied for more training.
Noting that he worked at the Army institute, he wrote in his December 2001 application, "Perhaps I could help in case of a disaster related to biological agents."
Odd and pressing
In November 2001, when Haigwood received the e-mailed photograph of Ivins working with anthrax in the laboratory, she noticed he was not wearing gloves, a safety breach she thought showed an unnerving "hubris." That fed her hunch that he had sent the deadly letters.
Knowing her suspicion was an extraordinary leap, she kept it to herself. But three months later, the American Society for Microbiology sent an appeal from the FBI to its 40,000 members.
"It is very likely that one or more of you know this individual," the message said. FBI profilers thought the killer might have made the anthrax during "off-hours in a laboratory."
Haigwood, who is now director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, called the FBI, and two agents visited her.
Soon after Haigwood's call, there was another reason for investigators to scrutinize Ivins. The Army found that in December 2001, he had secretly swabbed for anthrax spores outside his secure laboratory space.
Suspecting a technician's desk was contaminated, he later told an Army investigator, he had tested and found a bacillus, the class of bacteria that includes anthrax. He scrubbed the desk with bleach but did not report the spill, though he mentioned it later to Anderson, his ethicist friend.
"I had no desire to cry 'Wolf!' " Ivins wrote to Army investigators in April 2002. "I would have been agitating many people for no real reason." Yet Ivins wrote that he could not recall whether he had retested the desk for anthrax after his cleanup, as regulations required.
Ivins' conduct was a flagrant violation of safety standards. Anthrax spores outside containment areas could endanger anyone who was not vaccinated. When the spill was properly investigated, three strains of anthrax were found outside the laboratory, including the Ames strain on Ivins' desk.
By then, too, the bureau had detailed records showing when scientists entered and left the secure laboratories. The documents showed that Ivins had worked unusually late hours in his lab for several nights before each of the anthrax mailings, a pattern that stood out even at an institute where night hours were common.
Yet neither the spill nor the night hours sparked the suspicions of the anthrax investigators.
Flask of anthrax
By early 2004, FBI scientists had discovered that of 60 domestic and foreign water samples, only water from Frederick, Md., had the same chemical signature as the water used to grow the mailed anthrax.
By late 2005, genetic analysis by top outside experts had matched the spores to a flask of anthrax at the Army institute. Ivins had the flask, but some agents were convinced someone else was the culprit.
The science alone could not close the case. "We could get to a lab, to a refrigerator, to a flask," said Dwight Adams, the FBI laboratory director until 2006. "But that didn't put the letters in anyone's hand."
The agents were building what they thought was a prosecutable case against Ivins, but holes remained. No evidence placed him in Princeton, N.J., where the letters were mailed. No receipt showed he had bought the same type of envelopes. No security camera had caught him photocopying the notes.
Nor, in his e-mails and conversations, could agents find any hint of a confession. One colleague who knew Ivins well told them, "If Bruce had done this, he never would have been able to keep quiet about it."
In May 2007, Ivins — assured by prosecutors he was not a target of the investigation — testified under oath to a grand jury on two consecutive days. He answered all the questions about anthrax.
A life coming apart
Starting with the search of his house on Nov. 1, 2007, Ivins' life began to come irrevocably apart. While some agents carted files, computers and guns from the house, others questioned his wife and children, intimating they knew he was the killer. Fort Detrick officials banned him from working with anthrax.
Last March, after drinking the fruit-juice-and-vodka mix that he had come to rely on and adding a big dose of Valium, he passed out and was discovered by his wife, Diane. Despite his denials, she was convinced it was a suicide attempt.
"You know, he's been incredibly, incredibly stressed, because of the way he's been hounded by the FBI," Diane Ivins would later tell Frederick police officers in a recorded interview. "They've always treated him as if he was guilty, and I just felt that he couldn't take it anymore."
Ivins spent much of the spring in residential alcohol treatment outside Washington and in western Maryland. But when he returned, the FBI agents were still there, watching his house and trailing him around Frederick.
On July 10, Ivins reached a breaking point. He told his therapy group that he expected to be charged with five murders and talked about killing himself and killing others with him, using his .22-caliber rifle, Glock handgun and bulletproof vest.
Tipped off by the therapist, Frederick police officers removed Ivins from the Army laboratory that day. He voluntarily checked himself in at the Sheppard Pratt psychiatric hospital in Baltimore.
After a two-week stay, Ivins was brought home by his wife. She had left a note in his bedroom, saying she hoped he could turn his life around and they could enjoy life together.
Even as Diane Ivins picked up her husband at the Baltimore hospital last July 24, his group therapist, Jean Duley, was testifying about threats he had left on her answering machine. A judge signed an order directing Ivins to stay away from Duley.
The order would not be necessary. At 12:31 p.m., according to records checked by the Frederick police, Ivins stopped in at the grocery near his house and bought Tylenol PM, acetaminophen and an antihistamine. He filled three prescriptions for his psychiatric illness, possibly a sign that he was thinking about the future.
At 1:21 p.m., he bought a second container of Tylenol PM.
Diane Ivins found him on the bathroom floor two days later.
Bruce Ivins, the connoisseur of secrets, took with him any knowledge he had of the anthrax attacks.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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