Dead Army vaccine scientist eyed in anthrax probe - KFDA - NewsChannel 10 / Amarillo News, Weather, Sports

Dead Army vaccine scientist eyed in anthrax probe

A hazardous materials unit worker is hosed down on Capitol Hill in this Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2001 file photo A hazardous materials unit worker is hosed down on Capitol Hill in this Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2001 file photo
Hazmat personnel walk down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in this Monday, Nov. 27, 2006 file photo Hazmat personnel walk down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in this Monday, Nov. 27, 2006 file photo
WASHINGTON (AP) - An Army scientist committed suicide before federal prosecutors could charge him with mailing anthrax-laced letters in the weeks following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Authorities said Friday the letters may have been part of a warped plan to test his vaccine for the deadly poison.

The scientist, Bruce E. Ivins, worked at the Army's biological warfare labs at Ft. Detrick, Md., for 18 years until his death on Tuesday. He had a long history of homicidal threats, according to papers recently filed in local court by a social worker.

The developments marked an unexpected turn in an episode that rattled a nation shaken only a few weeks earlier by the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Letters containing anthrax powder turned up at congressional offices, newsrooms and elsewhere, killing five and sending numerous victims to hospitals with anthrax poisoning.

Ivins' attorney asserted the scientist's innocence and said he had been cooperating 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.

For years, the only known suspect in the investigation dubbed "Amerithrax" had been Steven Hatfill, a colleague of Ivins, who has since been exonerated.

Ivins had worked for more than a decade to develop an anthrax vaccine that was effective even in cases where different strains of anthrax were mixed, which made vaccines ineffective, according to federal documents reviewed by the AP. In his research, he complained about the limitations of testing anthrax drugs on animals.

Several U.S. officials, all of whom discussed the ongoing investigation on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said prosecutors were closing in on the 62-year-old Ivins for the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Authorities had been investigating whether the anthrax was released to test new drugs. They were planning an indictment that would have sought the death penalty for the attacks, officials said.

The Justice Department released a brief statement Friday afternoon saying, "substantial progress has been made in the investigation by bringing to bear new and sophisticated scientific tools." The statement did not identify Ivins. It said investigative documents remain sealed but the department expects to release more information soon.

Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to close the investigation, officials said, meaning authorities are still not certain whether Ivins acted alone or had help. One official close to the case said that decision was expected within days. If the case is closed soon, one official said, that will indicate that Ivins was the lone suspect.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said President Bush was aware there were "about to be developments" in the case but did not elaborate.

Ivins died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland. Tom Ivins, a brother of the scientist, told The Associated Press that his other brother, Charles, had told him that Bruce committed suicide and Tylenol might have been involved. The Los Angeles Times, which first reported that Ivins was under suspicion, 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"

Friends, colleagues and court documents paint a picture of a brilliant scientist with a troubled side. Maryland court documents show he recently received psychiatric treatment and he was ordered to stay away from a woman he was accused of stalking and threatening to kill.

Social worker Jean C. Duley filed handwritten court documents last week saying she was preparing to testify before a grand jury. She said the FBI was involved and that Ivins would be charged with five capital murders.

"Client has a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, plans and actions towards therapists," Duley said, adding that his psychiatrist had described him as homicidal and sociopathic.

Police said they removed Ivins from his job recently because of fears he had become a danger to himself or others.

Ivins, who received three degrees including a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati, co-authored numerous anthrax studies, including one published in July that described efforts to treat mice deliberately exposed to anthrax. The scientists complained of the limited supply of monkeys available for testing and said testing on animals is insufficient to demonstrate how humans would respond to treatment.

The Fort Detrick laboratory and its specialized scientists for years have been at the center of the FBI's investigation of the anthrax mailings. In late June, the government exonerated Hatfill, whose name has for years had been associated with the attacks. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft called him a "person of interest" in 2002.

The government recently paid Hatfill $5.82 million to settle a lawsuit contending he was falsely accused. Hatfill's lawyer, Tom Connolly, said he would not discuss the case until the FBI has time to speak with the family members of victims of the anthrax attacks.

Unusual behavior by Ivins was noted at Fort Detrick in the six months following the anthrax mailings, when he conducted unauthorized testing for anthrax spores outside containment areas at the infectious disease research unit where he worked, according to an internal report. But the focus long stayed on Hatfill.

Investigators had been watching Ivins for some time. His brother, Tom Ivins, said federal agents questioned the scientist about a year and a half ago. Neighbors said FBI agents in cars with tinted windows conducted surveillance on his home. A colleague, Henry S. Heine, said that over the past year, he and others on their team have testified before a federal grand jury in Washington that has been investigating the anthrax mailings.

In occasional letters to the local newspaper, Ivins discussed his strong religious faith. He played keyboard and helped clean up after masses at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Frederick, where a dozen parishioners gathered after morning Mass to pray for him Friday.

The Rev. Richard Murphy called Ivins "a quiet man. He was always very helpful and pleasant."

Five people died and 17 were sickened by anthrax powder in letters that were mailed to lawmakers' Capitol Hill offices, TV networks in New York, and tabloid newspaper offices in Florida. Two postal workers in a Washington mail facility, a New York hospital worker, a Florida photo editor and an elderly Connecticut woman were killed.

Associated Press writers Dave Dishneau and Chrissie Thompson from Frederick, Md. and AP researchers Susan James and Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this story.

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