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Doubts about anthrax story

Survivors, relatives wonder if dead scientist was truly the culprit

By Stephen Kiehl

Sun Reporter

August 5, 2008

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Survivors of the 2001 anthrax attacks and relatives of those killed by the deadly powder said yesterday that they want a full accounting from the FBI of its investigation to date, and they are not yet convinced that Bruce Ivins, the government scientist who killed himself last week, was responsible.

Federal authorities are expected to meet this week with the victims' families in Washington to discuss their investigation, after which the FBI could close its nearly seven-year-old anthrax case and publicly release its findings. But with reports emerging that the case against Ivins is largely circumstantial, some wonder if real closure will ever come.

"I don't know whether this is the right person or not," said Maureen Stevens, the widow of Robert Stevens, a photo editor at the Sun, a supermarket tabloid, who was the first killed in the fall 2001 attacks. Stevens said she has gone to Washington twice before for meetings, but nothing came of them. She said she received an e-mail from the FBI informing her of this week's meeting.

"I don't know if we'll hear anything from them that will convince me that they've gotten to the bottom of it," Stevens said.

Ivins died last Tuesday after federal investigators had spent a year watching his house near Fort Detrick in Frederick, following him, and interviewing him and his colleagues at the U.S Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Ivins' lawyer has said the scientist was innocent.

"I think he's a convenient fall guy. They can say, 'OK, we found him, case closed, we're going home,'" said Dr. Kenneth W. Hedlund, the former chief of bacteriology at Fort Detrick who hired Ivins. "The FBI apparently applied a lot of pressure to all the investigators there [at Detrick], and they found the weakest link."

The FBI has not yet said how it was able to connect Ivins to the attacks.

But the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal, relying in part on unnamed sources, reported that investigators employing new technology were able to find a genetic link between the specific anthrax strain recovered from the letters and the bodies of victims and the one found in an office and other "nonlaboratory space" where Ivins worked in 2001.

The New York Times reported that investigators intensively questioned his children, Andrew and Amanda, now both 24. One former colleague, Dr. W. Russell Byrne, said the agents pressed Ivins' daughter repeatedly to acknowledge that her father was involved in the attacks.

"It was not an interview," Byrne said. "It was a frank attempt at intimidation."

Byrne said he believed Ivins was singled out partly because of his personal weaknesses. "If they had real evidence on him, why did they not just arrest him?"

The Associated Press, quoting unnamed government sources, reported yesterday that Ivins had a lengthy obsession with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, which has a chapter house near the Princeton, N.J., mailbox from which the anthrax letters were sent. However, the report says the FBI can't place Ivins in Princeton the day the letters were mailed.

Hedlund said Ivins was a bacteriologist and lacked the expertise to convert the anthrax into the deadly form that was used in the 2001 mailings to government offices and newsrooms.

Rep. Rush Holt, who represents the central New Jersey district where the anthrax letters were mailed, said circumstantial evidence is not enough, especially after the series of mistakes made in this case. The FBI spent years investigating Steven J. Hatfill, another scientist who worked in the same lab as Ivins. The government recently agreed to pay a $5.82 million settlement to Hatfill.

Holt sent a letter to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III asking that Mueller appear before Congress to provide an account of the investigation.

"One of the reasons they need to lay this out is so that the public can be confident that they are protected," Holt, a Democrat, said in an interview yesterday. "The post office workers, the general public, the local police - they are all owed an explanation. They would like to have closure."

David Hose, 65, contracted anthrax while working at a mail facility in Sterling, Va. He said he didn't believe Ivins was responsible for the attacks, nor does he have any faith in the FBI's ability to close the case.

"They just mumble and bumble around," he said. "It's like a TV show."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Frank Roylance contributed to this article.