Scientist linked to anthrax case dies

The Baltimore Sun

One of the nation's top biodefense researchers has died in Frederick, apparently in a suicide, just as the U.S. Justice Department was to file criminal charges against him in the anthrax mailing assaults of 2001 that killed five, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

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

Ivins' name had not been disclosed publicly as a suspect in the case, which disrupted mail service and Senate business three weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11. He had for years played a pivotal role in research to improve anthrax vaccines, preparing anthrax formulations used in experiments on animals.

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

Ivins died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital after having ingested a large dose of prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine, said a friend and colleague who declined to be identified out of concern, he said, 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 spokewoman for USAMRIID, who said she was not at liberty to discuss details surrounding the death.

The extraordinary turn of events followed the government's payment in June of a settlement valued at $5.82 million to 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 of committing the anthrax 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 re-examine leads or potential suspects that might have received insufficient attention.

Moreover, significant progress was made in analyzing properties of the anthrax powder recovered from separate letters that were addressed to two U.S. senators.

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

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

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 away 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 phone call that same day by the Times verified that Ivins's government voice mail was still functioning.

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."

A spokeswoman for the FBI, Debra Weierman, said yesterday that the bureau would not comment regarding the death of Ivins. Last week, however, the FBI director 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 said. "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 Ph.D. in microbiology, from the University of Cincinnati.

The elder 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," Thomas Ivins said, referring to his efforts to describe his brother's personality and tendencies.

"He had in his mind that he was omnipotent."

Ivins' widow declined to be interviewed when reached yesterday at her home in Frederick.The couple raised twins, who are now 24 years old.

David Willman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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