WASHINGTON - The government has finally nailed Dr. Steven J. Hatfill.
The former Army bioterrorism expert and current "person of interest" in the FBI's investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks was convicted yesterday in a District of Columbia traffic court of "walking to create a hazard," an offense that occurred in May when an FBI surveillance truck ran over his foot.
The pedestrian ticket will cost Hatfill $5.
Bryan Blankenship, the FBI employee behind the wheel of the bureau's black Dodge Durango that day, was not charged in the incident. No FBI personnel or any other witnesses appeared at the half-hour hearing.
But the driver's actions were "irrelevant" to the charge, said Stephen Lawson, the hearing officer for the District's Department of Motor Vehicles.
"At the point when the respondent [Hatfill] stepped into the roadway, where he was not protected by a crosswalk - at that point the violation was complete," he said, upholding the charge and the fine.
Flanked by his two lawyers, Hatfill pulled some crumpled bills from his pocket and walked toward the cashiers' windows to pay his fine. But, put off by long lines, he decided to mail in a check instead, and headed for a gaggle of reporters and TV cameras waiting outside.
Hatfill, dressed in a dark blue suit and red tie, stood back while his lead attorney, Thomas G. Connolly, took the opportunity to attack the FBI again for an "unrelenting campaign of harassment" against his client "for no legitimate reason."
That campaign left Hatfill "writhing in pain on the streets of the district," Connolly said, "and a [Washington] police officer writes him a ticket. And, of course, the FBI agent who ran him down received nothing - no ticket, no violation."
Hatfill, he said, has done nothing to deserve such scrutiny by the FBI or the news media, Connolly said. "All he asks is to be left alone," the attorney said.
He is likely to ask for more than that, however. Hatfill is expected to file a lawsuit targeting the FBI, some news media and others for actions that he says have "destroyed" his life.
The FBI has never charged anyone with sending the mysterious, anthrax-laced letters mailed to U.S. senators and news organizations in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The letters killed five people and sickened at least 17.
The FBI's attention fell on Hatfill last year. Trained as a physician in Zimbabwe and South Africa, he returned to the United States and a career as a bioterrorism expert. He worked for the National Institutes of Health and the Army's biodefense research center at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Md., in a building where others were studying the Ames strain of anthrax used in the attacks. A Sun investigation found his resume listed a Ph.D. he did not earn.
Once the FBI's interest in him became public, Hatfill lost two $150,000-a-year jobs in succession. And despite his repeated protestations of innocence, investigators searched his residences, interrogated his friends and, during some stretches, followed him 24 hours a day.
On May 17, Hatfill told police, he and his girlfriend parked outside a store in Georgetown to buy paint. At that point, he approached an FBI vehicle that had followed him, he said, because he believed it was being driven in an unsafe manner.
When he attempted to approach and photograph the Durango's driver, he said, the agent swung the truck away from the curb and into the traffic lane, running over Hatfill's right foot and knocking him down.
Hatfill was treated at the scene and declined transport to a hospital. "Steve's too tough to go to the doctor," Connolly said yesterday. But the lawyer showed reporters a blurry photograph of what he said was Hatfill's badly bruised right foot.
Hatfill and his attorneys were smiling and joking as they sat down in Lawson's hearing room, across a table from Clyde Pringle, the 26-year-old D.C. police officer who ticketed Hatfill in May.
When nine reporters also filed in, Pringle's jaw dropped. "What the ... " he said under his breath. Hatfill winked at Pringle but did not speak at the hearing, except to deny the charge.
Pringle testified that he reached the scene after Hatfill was struck and found him on the ground. He said he spoke to Hatfill and the FBI agent, who acknowledged that agents were following Hatfill 24 hours a day.
Under questioning by Nick Bravin, Hatfill's second attorney, Pringle said he also interviewed two female witnesses and viewed the FBI's videotape of the incident. But neither the women nor the tape was presented at yesterday's hearing.
Bravin said, "I don't think the government has presented clear and convincing evidence of any offense."
Pringle said he considered all the evidence at the scene and concluded that Hatfill was at fault.
He said it was the first ticket he had ever written for "walking to create a hazard" in four years on the force. But in the absence of a protected crosswalk, Pringle said, "Mr. Hatfill should have walked on the sidewalk."
Hatfill did not say whether he would appeal the conviction. He has 15 days to do so.