Friends and colleagues expressed shock yesterday that Bruce E. Ivins - an award-winning scientist who played guitar in his church folk group - would kill himself after being targeted in a federal anthrax probe, even as a contrasting portrait emerged of a man who in his final months spiraled into depression and bizarre behavior.
Ivins, who was 62 when he took a fatal dose of Tylenol and codeine Tuesday, had been released from a psychiatric unit last week at Frederick Memorial Hospital. Two weeks earlier, according to court records, he had made "threats of homicidal intent" against a Frederick social worker, who sought and won a protective order against him as federal investigators were closing in.
It was a stunning fall and tragic denouement for a man who had been at the peak of his profession, admired by friends and respected by colleagues. Ivins was considered one of the leading experts on anthrax research and, after the anthrax attacks that killed five people in the fall of 2001, he was called on by the government to assist in the investigation.
Friends and neighbors said he was an avid gardener, an active walker and a volunteer with the Red Cross. Ivins and his wife of 33 years, Diane, had 24-year-old twins, whom they raised in a modest white house with red shutters across the street from Fort Detrick in Frederick, where Ivins worked at the U.S. Army's institute for infectious diseases.
"Anybody that knew Bruce through his church affiliation is just dumbfounded," said Bill McCormick, who attended St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Frederick with Ivins for 25 years. He said Ivins was a "quiet, giving kind of guy," and the news that he was about to be charged in the attacks did not fit with the Ivins he knew.
But the Ivins home had been under federal surveillance for the past year, according to a neighbor who saw agents parked outside. Ivins had been cooperating with investigators and answering questions, colleagues said. He was being treated for depression.
"The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people," Ivins' lawyer, Paul F. Kemp, said in a statement. "In Dr. Ivins' case, it led to his untimely death."
Kemp asserted Ivins' innocence and described him as a "world-renowned and highly decorated scientist who served his country for over 33 years" as a civilian microbiologist for the Army.
Two military scientists who had worked closely with Ivins on projects for years, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said yesterday they were stunned and angry that he was being depicted as a suspect in the attacks without hard evidence being released by the FBI. The federal investigation into Ivins was first reported by the Los Angeles Times yesterday.
"Nobody thinks Bruce did it," said one scientist. He described Ivins as "socially awkward" but he "certainly wasn't a recluse or a hermit." He added, "He was kind of a geeky scientist."
Another colleague said, "I've talked to several friends, and we're all just really sad and shocked. I hate to see him painted as a person who could've done this."
Bonnie Duggan, who lives a few doors down from the Ivins on Military Road in Frederick and had seen the federal agents on the street, was still shocked by the her neighbor's rapid descent.
"I feel so badly for his family," said Duggan, an adult-education worker who has lived next to the Ivinses since they bought the 1,500-square-foot house in 1990.
It was just the opposite, she said. Whenever she saw him on the street, he would wave heartily and they would chat. She said he walked regularly, perhaps to help his bad back. When she needed a chain saw for some yard work, Ivins showed up and did the job.
"Bruce was the kind of neighbor that anyone would want to have," Duggan said.
In Ivins' hometown of Lebanon, Ohio, people began to suspect last year that Ivins was being investigated in the anthrax attacks. John Zimkus, the town historian, said investigators from the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency made several visits to the town starting last fall. The agents went to the town museum, looking for old yearbooks and asked questions about the Ivins family home, such as when it was built and who designed it.
Ivins was the son of a Princeton-educated pharmacist, and one of his ancestors had opened a pharmacy in town in 1893, according to a Web site on Lebanon history. The family had deep roots in the small town near Cincinnati.
The federal agents went to the store where Ivins father had run his pharmacy and spent 45 minutes to an hour in the basement, Zimkus said. He described the agents as scouring the background of the Ivins family.
Ivins was the youngest of three boys. His eldest brother, Tom Ivins, said yesterday that their mother "babied" Bruce Ivins and protected him. Tom Ivins, now 73 and living in Middletown, Ohio, said that while he played football in high school, his mother wouldn't allow Bruce Ivins to engage in contact sports.
"She didn't want Bruce playing those because she didn't want him to get hurt," Tom Ivins said. "I think he ran cross country. Nothing like soccer or football or basketball."
The elder Ivins said investigators questioned him about family history and his brother's childhood. But Tom Ivins had not been in touch with his younger brother for some time. .
In a phone interview yesterday, he did not express sorrow over his brother's death. He said, "I think the pressure got to him. ... He's not a man like I am."
The middle brother, Charles Ivins, was closer to Bruce Ivins. He declined to comment when he was reached at his home in Etowah. N.C.
Bruce Ivins earned a bachelor's degree, a master's degree and a doctorate from the University of Cincinnati., the last coming in 1976. By 1980, he had joined the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick. He worked on developing anthrax vaccines and put in particularly long hours after the anthrax mailings of 2001. He was trying to develop a new vaccine that would be cheap and lack the side-effects of earlier ones. In 2003, he won the Defense Department's highest honor for civilian employees.
"Bruce was very intense," said Norman Covert, who worked at Fort Detrick from 1977 to 1999, eventually becoming public affairs director. "He could be an emotional scientist, all-consumed by his work."
Covert said Ivins always talked science - never politics - and described himself as "totally aghast" at the news yesterday. "His reputation is now in the toilet because of the accusations made, and there have been no facts presented."
In recent months, however, Ivins' life apparently unraveled. He and his colleagues were being questioned by investigators. His home was under surveillance. And on or around July 10, Ivins made a threatening phone call to a Frederick social worker named Jean C. Duley, according to court records. Around the same time, he entered Sheppard Pratt Services at Frederick Memorial Hospital, a 15-bed psychiatric unit.
It was unclear yesterday what relationship, if any, existed between Ivins and Duley. Duley's lawyer declined to comment. But court records show that July 24, Duley sought a protective order against Ivins. In Duley's complaint, she alleged "threats of violence," "harassment" and "stalking." She also said that on July 9, Ivins made "threats of homicidal intent, plans."
The order was granted, and the court found that Ivins had placed Duley "in fear of imminent serious bodily harm" and that he was "likely to commit a prohibited act" against her. A judge ordered Ivins to have no contact with Duley and stay away from her.
But when an officer tried to serve the order on Ivins at Fort Detrick on July 25, the officer was "advised that [Ivins] has been barred from property," court records say. The Los Angeles Times reported that Ivins had been released from Frederick Memorial Hospital on July 24.
On Thursday, Duley's case against Ivins was dismissed. A handwritten note in the margin of the case file says, "Subject deceased 7/29/08."
Sun reporters Melissa Harris and David Wood contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun