Long under suspicion

Sun reporter

The Frederick County scientist who killed himself days before federal prosecutors reportedly planned to charge him with five murders related to the 2001 anthrax attacks had been under suspicion for more than a year and was recently accused of making "homicidal threats" as the pressure built and investigators closed in.

Bruce E. Ivins, a 62-year-old microbiologist who was part of an elite team of researchers at the U.S. Army's biochemical laboratory at Fort Detrick, was being linked to the same deadly mail-borne anthrax attacks that his lab helped to investigate. Justice Department prosecutors planned to seek the death penalty against Ivins, according to sources close to the case, and had convened a federal grand jury to hear evidence.

According to a neighbor, federal agents had been monitoring Ivins' house for a year.

Federal investigators disclosed few new details yesterday about their interest in Ivins, whose association with the anthrax case was first reported yesterday by the Los Angeles Times. Ivins' attorney released a statement declaring his client's innocence, blaming his suicide on the "relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo."

But details pieced together from court records, Army investigative reports and interviews with dozens of family members, colleagues and acquaintances paint a sketch of a respected, if rather intense scientist who seemed to unravel as prosecutors' intention to pursue a criminal case against him became clear.

Court records show that Ivins briefly entered Sheppard Pratt Services at Frederick Memorial Hospital, a 15-bed psychiatric unit, around July 10, less than three weeks before killing himself with an overdose of prescription-strength Tylenol and codeine.

Also around that time, he called Jean C. Duley, a social worker in Frederick, and left a threatening message, the records show. It was unclear yesterday what, if any, relationship existed between them.

On July 24, Duley sought a protective order against Ivins in Frederick County District Court, saying the scientist had a "history ... of homicidal threats, actions [and] plans." A judge granted the protective order, finding that Ivins had placed Duley "in fear of imminent serious bodily harm." The order was dismissed Thursday, two days after Ivins' death.

Duley also said in her handwritten petition that she was scheduled to testify yesterday before a federal grand jury and that she expected Ivins to be charged with five murders.

Even as they expressed doubt about his role in the anthrax attacks, colleagues described Ivins as a focused, often emotional scientist who didn't always respond well to pressure or criticism.

"There were times when he was not happy with the intensity of the discussion, sort of like, 'How can you question what I want to do here?'" said Norman Covert, a former public affairs director at Fort Detrick who served on a scientific committee with Ivins from 1999 through 2004.

His estranged brother, Tom Ivins, said Bruce often acted "omnipotent" because of his education, which included a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Cincinnati.

Yet Covert and other acquaintances also described Ivins as among the top scientific researchers in the specialty of biodefense and said they never found any reason to doubt his integrity. In 2003, Ivins shared the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest award for an Army civilian. He is co-author of an article on anthrax vaccination in the current issue of the journal Vaccine, one of the top scientific journals in the field.

"My jaw hit the table when I saw his name," said Alan Zelicoff, a biodefense expert and former senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories. "He was darn well respected in the field."

"I am totally aghast at this," Covert said, adding that he is "very distressed by it all, and curious about what the FBI thinks they have."

The 2001 mailings of letters laced with anthrax powder, delivered to news organizations in New York, a tabloid newspaper in Florida and congressional offices in Washington, killed five people, including two postal workers, a New York hospital worker, an elderly Connecticut woman and a photography editor. Seventeen people suffered illnesses related to anthrax exposure but recovered.

The federal investigation that ensued, which the FBI calls Amerithrax and characterizes as "one of the largest and most complex in the history of law enforcement," has resulted in more than 6,000 subpoenas but no arrests. The lab at Fort Detrick went into overdrive after the attack, developing anthrax vaccines as well as testing samples of powder sent from people throughout the country who believed, always mistakenly, they had been the target of another attack. Terrorism experts say the impact on the postal service and thinking about domestic terrorism has been profound.

"To this day, virtually all communications with federal agencies are through the Internet, and it started because of that event," said Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

The Justice Department, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service issued a joint statement yesterday, saying there had been "significant developments" in the investigation and promising additional information "in the near future." The three agencies "have significant obligations to the victims of these attacks and their families that must be fulfilled" before more announcements, the statement said.

According to law enforcement officials familiar with the process, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, Justice Department officials are leery of disclosing too much information, having been stung by leaked false claims related to one-time suspect Steven Hatfill, who has been exonerated and recently settled an invasion of privacy claim against the government for $5.82 million.

Federal investigators moved away from Hatfill and concluded that Ivins was the culprit after FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III changed leadership of the inquiry in late 2006, the Times reported yesterday

Officials are also bound by grand jury secrecy rules and have begun the process of having documents unsealed for public release, the sources said. They said Justice Department lawyers are combing through material to determine whether to dissolve the grand jury and close the case entirely, which would be a possible indication that Ivins is suspected of having acted alone.

Some victims of the 2001 attacks, meanwhile, said they felt a sense of resolution in the latest developments. Mark Cunningham, a New York Post editor who developed an infection after being exposed to anthrax at work, said he considered Ivins' suicide evidence of guilt.

"We will never know for sure - that's life," Cunningham told the Associated Press. "But this is good enough for government work. It's better government work than I had expected at this point."

Still, many who knew Ivins came to his defense. His attorney, Paul F. Kemp, released a statement that said: "We are saddened by his death, and disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to defend his good name and reputation in a court of law."

Others urged the FBI not to close the case prematurely. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who was given antibiotics and forced into a temporary space after trace amounts of anthrax were found in his Capitol Hill office, said the investigation has a personal nature for him.

"The manufacturing of anthrax is very complex and intricate. I don't think it would surprise anyone if there was someone, some other people involved in this," Cummings said. "I just hope that as they close their files, that they'll make sure - and I know they will - that there's no one else involved."

Ivins was linked to another controversy related to anthrax when he failed to report possible contamination of work spaces at the Fort Detrick lab in late 2001 and mid-2002, according to documents detailing an Army investigation of the incidents. The Army concluded the lab was sloppy with its safety procedures and reporting.

Dr. W. Russell Byrne, a colleague who worked in the bacteriology division of the Fort Detrick research facility for 15 years, told the Associated Press that aggressive FBI agents "hounded" Ivins when they began to suspect his involvement in the 2001 attacks, raiding his home twice. A neighbor told The Sun she had seen federal investigators monitoring Ivins' house for a year or more.

Byrne, who doesn't believe Ivins was behind the attacks, said the investigation led to Ivins' hospitalization for depression earlier this month. He said local police forcibly removed Ivins from his job because of fears he had become a danger to himself and others.

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