Anthrax scientist commits suicide as FBI closes in

Source: By LARA JAKES JORDAN and DAVID DISHNEAU, Associated Press Writers

A top U.S. biodefense researcher apparently committed suicide just as the Justice Department was about to file criminal charges against him in the anthrax mailings that traumatized the nation in the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to a published report.

The scientist, Bruce E. Ivins, 62, who worked for the past 18 years at the government’s biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md., had been told about the impending prosecution, the Los Angeles Times reported for Friday editions. The laboratory has been at the center of the FBI’s investigation of the anthrax attacks, which killed five people.

Ivins died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland. The Times, quoting an unidentified colleague, said the scientist had taken a massive dose of a prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine.

Tom Ivins, a brother of the scientist, told The Associated Press that another of his brothers, Charles, told him Bruce had committed suicide.

A woman who answered the phone at Charles Ivins’ home in Etowah, N.C., refused to wake him and declined to comment on his death. “This is a grieving time,” she said.

A woman who answered the phone at Bruce Ivins’ home in Frederick declined to comment.

Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr and FBI Assistant Director John Miller declined to comment on the report.

Henry S. Heine, a scientist who had worked with Ivins on inhalation anthrax research at Fort Detrick, said he and others on their team have testified before a federal grand jury in Washington that has been investigating the anthrax mailings for more than a year.

Heine declined to comment on Ivins’ death.

Norman Covert, a retired Fort Detrick spokesman who served with Ivins on an animal-care and protocol committee, said Ivins was “a very intent guy” at their meetings.

Ivins was the co-author of numerous anthrax studies, including one on a treatment for inhalation anthrax published in the July 7 issue of the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

Just last month, the government exonerated another scientist at the Fort Detrick lab, Steven Hatfill, who had been identified by the FBI as a “person of interest” in the anthrax attacks. The government paid Hatfill $5.82 million to settle a lawsuit he filed against the Justice Department in which he claimed the department violated his privacy rights by speaking with reporters about the case.

The Times said federal investigators moved away from Hatfill and concluded Ivins was the culprit after FBI Director Robert Mueller changed leadership of the investigation in 2006. The new investigators instructed agents to re-examine leads and reconsider potential suspects. In the meantime, investigators made progress in analyzing anthrax powder recovered from letters addressed to two U.S. senators, according to the report.

Besides the five deaths, 17 people were sickened by anthrax that was mailed to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and members of the news media in New York and Florida just weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The victims included postal workers and others who came into contact with the anthrax.

In the six months following the anthrax mailings, Ivins conducted unauthorized testing for anthrax spores outside containment areas at USAMRIID — the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick — and found some, according to an internal report by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, which oversees the lab.

In December 2001, after conducting tests triggered by a technician’s fears that she had been exposed, Ivins found evidence of anthrax and decontaminated the woman’s desk, computer, keypad and monitor, but didn’t notify his superiors, according to the report.

The report says Ivins performed more unauthorized sampling on April 15, 2002, and found anthrax spores in his office, in a passbox used for moving materials in and out of labs, and in a room where male workers changed from civilian clothing into laboratory garb.

Ivins told Army investigators he conducted unauthorized tests because he was worried that the powdered anthrax in letters that had been sent to USAMRIID for analysis might not have been adequately contained.

In January 2002, the FBI doubled the reward for helping solve the case to $2.5 million, and by June officials said the agency was scrutinizing 20 to 30 scientists who might have had the knowledge and opportunity to send the anthrax letters.

After the government’s settlement with Hatfill was announced in late June, Ivins started showing signs of strain, the Times said. It quoted a longtime colleague as saying Ivins was being treated for depression and indicated to a therapist that he was considering suicide. Family members and local police escorted Ivins away from the Army lab, and his access to sensitive areas was curtailed, the colleague told the newspaper. He said Ivins was facing a forced retirement in September.

The colleague declined to be identified out of concern that he would be harassed by the FBI, the report said.

Ivins was one of the nation’s leading biodefense researchers.

In 2003, Ivins and two of his colleagues at the USAMRIID received the highest honor given to Defense Department civilian employees for helping solve technical problems in the manufacture of anthrax vaccine.

In 1997, U.S. military personnel began receiving the vaccine to protect against a possible biological attack. Within months, a number of vaccine lots failed a potency test required by federal regulators, causing a shortage of vaccine and eventually halting the immunization program. The USAMRIID team’s work led to the reapproval of the vaccine for human use.

The Times said Ivins was the son of a Princeton-educated pharmacist who was born and raised in Lebanon, Ohio. He received undergraduate and graduate degrees, including a Ph.D. in microbiology, from the University of Cincinnati.

He and his wife, Diane, owned a home just outside the main gate to Fort Detrick.

Second News Article for the LA Times 

Apparent suicide in anthrax case

Bruce E. Ivins, a scientist who helped the FBI investigate the 2001 mail attacks, was about to face charges.

By David Willman
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

August 1, 2008

A top government scientist who helped the FBI analyze samples from the 2001 anthrax attacks has died in Maryland from an apparent suicide, just as the Justice Department was about to file criminal charges against him for the attacks, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

Bruce E. Ivins, 62, who for the last 18 years worked at the government’s elite biodefense research laboratories at Ft. Detrick, Md., had been informed of his impending prosecution, said people familiar with Ivins, his suspicious death and the FBI investigation.

Ivins, whose name had not been disclosed publicly as a suspect in the case, played a central role in research to improve anthrax vaccines by preparing anthrax formulations used in experiments on animals.

Regarded as a skilled microbiologist, Ivins also helped the FBI analyze the powdery material recovered from one of the anthrax-tainted envelopes sent to a U.S. senator’s office in Washington.

Ivins died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital after ingesting a massive dose of prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine, said a friend and colleague, who declined to be identified out of concern that he would be harassed by the FBI.

The death — without any mention of suicide — was announced to Ivins’ colleagues at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, through a staffwide e-mail.

“People here are pretty shook up about it,” said Caree Vander Linden, a spokeswoman for USAMRIID, who said she was not at liberty to discuss details surrounding the death.

The anthrax mailings killed five people, crippled national mail service, shut down a Senate office building and spread fear of further terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The extraordinary turn of events followed the government’s payment in June of a settlement valued at $5.82 million to a former government scientist, Steven J. Hatfill, who was long targeted as the FBI’s chief suspect despite a lack of any evidence that he had ever possessed anthrax.

The payout to Hatfill, a highly unusual development that all but exonerated him in the mailings, was an essential step to clear the way for prosecuting Ivins, according to lawyers familiar with the matter.

Federal investigators moved away from Hatfill — for years the only publicly identified “person of interest” — and ultimately concluded that Ivins was the culprit after FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III changed leadership of the investigation in late 2006.

The FBI’s new top investigators — Vincent B. Lisi and Edward W. Montooth — instructed agents to reexamine leads or potential suspects that may have received insufficient attention. Moreover, significant progress was made in analyzing genetic properties of the anthrax powder recovered from letters addressed to two senators.

The renewed efforts led the FBI back to USAMRIID, where agents first questioned scientists in December 2001, a few weeks after the fatal mailings.

By spring of this year, FBI agents were still contacting Ivins’ present and former colleagues. At USAMRIID and elsewhere, scientists acquainted with Ivins were asked to sign confidentiality agreements in order to prevent leaks of new investigative details.

Ivins, employed as a civilian at Ft. Detrick, earlier had attracted the attention of Army officials because of anthrax contaminations that Ivins failed to report for five months. In sworn oral and written statements to an Army investigator, Ivins said that he had erred by keeping the episodes secret — from December 2001 to late April 2002. He said he had swabbed and bleached more than 20 areas that he suspected 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. “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 chose not to discipline Ivins regarding his failure to report the contamination. Officials said that penalizing Ivins might discourage other employees from voluntarily reporting accidental spills of “hot” agents.

But Ivins’ recollections should have raised serious questions about his veracity and his intentions, according to some of those familiar with the investigation. For instance, although Ivins said that he swabbed areas near and within his personal office, and bleached surfaces to kill any spores, and that some of the swabs tested positive, he was vague about what should have been an essential next step:

Reswabbing to check whether any spores remained.

“I honestly do not recall if follow-up swabs were taken of the area,” Ivins said. “I may have done so, but I do not now remember reswabbing.”

“That’s bull—-,” said one former senior USAMRIID official. “If there’s contamination, you always reswab. And you would remember doing it.”

The former official told The Times that Ivins might have hedged regarding reswabbing out of fear that investigators would find more of the spores inside or near his office.

Ivins’ statements were contained within a May 2002 Army report on the contamination at USAMRIID and was obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

Soon after the government’s settlement with Hatfill was announced June 27, Ivins began showing signs of serious strain.

One of his longtime colleagues told The Times that Ivins, who was being treated for depression, indicated to a therapist that he was considering suicide.

Soon thereafter, family members and local police officers escorted Ivins from USAMRIID, where his access to sensitive areas was curtailed, the colleague said.

Ivins was committed to a facility in Frederick for treatment of his depression. On July 24, he was released from the facility, operated by Sheppard Pratt Health System. A telephone call that same day by The Times verified that Ivins’ government voice mail was still functioning at the bacteriology division of USAMRIID.

The scientist faced forced retirement, planned for September, said his longtime colleague, who described Ivins as emotionally fractured by the federal scrutiny.

“He didn’t have any more money to spend on legal fees. He was much more emotionally labile, in terms of sensitivity to things, than most scientists. . . . He was very thin-skinned.”

FBI spokeswoman Debra J. Weierman said Thursday that the bureau would not comment on the death of Ivins.

Last week, FBI Director Mueller told CNN that “in some sense, there have been breakthroughs” in the case.

“I’ll tell you we made great progress in the investigation,” Mueller added.

“And it’s in no way dormant.”

Ivins, the son of a Princeton-educated pharmacist, was born and raised in Lebanon, Ohio, and received undergraduate and graduate degrees, including a doctorate in microbiology, from the University of Cincinnati.

The eldest of his two brothers, Thomas Ivins, said he was not surprised by the events that have unfolded.

“He buckled under the pressure from the federal government,” Thomas Ivins said, adding that FBI agents came to Ohio last year to question him about his brother.

“I was questioned by the feds, and I sung like a canary” about Bruce Ivins’ personality and tendencies, Thomas Ivins said.

“He had in his mind that he was omnipotent.”

Ivins’ widow declined to be interviewed when reached Thursday at her home in Frederick. The couple raised twins, now 24.

The family’s home is 198 miles — about a 3 1/2 -hour drive — from a mailbox in Princeton, N.J., where anthrax spores were found by investigators.

All of the recovered anthrax letters were postmarked in that vicinity.

david.willman@latimes.com

Willman reported from Los Angeles and Washington. Times researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.

Also see Chronology of Dead Scientists

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