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Last Updated

13 Nov 2002

Source: USA Today, October 1, 2002.

Anthrax case remains frustrating mystery

By Toni Locy and Laura Parker, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- As the hunt for the bioterrorist who sent anthrax by mail enters its second year, investigators who have logged tens of thousands of hours in their search say they are no closer to solving the case.

FBI agents face the same mystery that unfolded before a horrified nation last fall: There are five fatalities in four states and four "weapons" -- letters contaminated with anthrax that seems to have come from the same strain. But there are no links to a culprit and no motive.

"Do I think this case will be solved? Yes, I do," says Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler. "I think there will be something scientific or something behaviorally that will break this case. But Ted Kaczynski took 18 years."

Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, killed three people and injured 23 with packages he sent through the mail. He was caught after his brother turned him in.

In their crash course about the science of the deadly bacteria, investigators have identified the strain. They have located a mailbox in Princeton, N.J., where they say they believe at least one of the letters was mailed. They have conducted 4,700 interviews. But they lament that they have not reached what one investigator calls "a turning point." They have been unable to link two of the victims -- Kathy Nguyen (case 22), 61, a New York hospital worker and Ottilie Lundgren (case 23), 94, a Connecticut retiree -- to any contaminated letters.

The investigation also has been hampered by the recovery of only minuscule amounts of anthrax spores. Investigators must balance the need to use the spores to develop forensic tests against their fears that they are destroying too much of the evidence.

The culprit is also a killer of few words. Unlike Kaczynski, who wrote letters to newspapers and a lengthy manifesto that gave himself away, the four anthrax letters were written in just 78 words.

Another letter that contaminated a Florida tabloid photo editor (case 5), the first victim, has not been recovered. So agents can only speculate about its intended recipient.

And investigators have not been able to determine why the recipients of the other four letters -- the New York Post, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw and Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy -- were chosen. Knowing why Daschle and the publisher of six supermarket tabloids were sent letters could tell investigators more about the sender. Or perhaps not.

Roscoe Howard, the U.S. attorney in Washington, whose office is coordinating the investigation, says a big break may be needed to solve a case this complex.

"You always need a break," he says. "You just do, whether it's (Lincoln assassin) John Wilkes Booth breaking his leg or Kaczynski's brother coming forward."

The investigation began when the photo editor, Bob Stevens (case 5), checked into a Florida hospital with flu-like symptoms. He died two days later, on Oct. 5.

Anthrax-contaminated letters began turning up in Manhattan, at NBC and the New York Post. Then, Daschle received his letter; it contained an especially potent and deadly dose. By late November, four other people were dead and 17 others were sick with anthrax infections.

The general lack of knowledge about anthrax hamstrung investigators at the beginning. For example, ignorance was so widespread that a lab in New York that examined anthrax in one of the letters was contaminated because of faulty procedures.

The investigation was slowed in the early stages in other ways. Agents sorted their way through more than 17,000 hoaxes and false alarms.

The FBI and the scientific community got off to a rocky start, further complicating one of the most complex investigations in the agency's history. During the early days, FBI agents who are used to dealing in absolutes had great difficulty understanding scientists who are accustomed to hypotheticals. That gap frustrated both sides, law enforcement officials say.

Distrust set in as the FBI realized that the very people it was counting on to help solve scientific mysteries -- microbiologists and bioterror experts -- were also potential suspects.

Van Harp, agent in charge of the FBI's Washington office, wrote a letter in November to the American Society for Microbiology telling the scientists just that.

Bioweapons scientists at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., volunteered to help educate the agents about anthrax, and then submitted voluntarily to polygraph tests to eliminate themselves as potential suspects. But some were asked to sit for hours of polygraphs, sometimes multiple times.

The FBI profile of the anthrax killer originally described an adult male with a science background who worked in a laboratory where he had access to anthrax. Profiles often change during an investigation, but the FBI refuses to discuss any revisions it may have made. Still, agents say they believe they are looking for one culprit.

There is a finite number of people with the expertise to have produced the finely ground anthrax spores found in the letters. Agents have reduced that number to about 30 to 40 scientists.

"We are learning things every day -- about spores, about what constitutes a crime scene, about who could do these things," Howard says.

Over the summer, investigators honed in on Steven Hatfill, 48, a former Army scientist who taught police and paramedics how to respond to bioterrorism. He was among those who had voluntarily submitted to polygraph testing.

In June and again in August, the FBI searched his apartment in Fort Detrick. Word leaked to the news media, and the search was conducted with news helicopters hovering. The episode infuriated Hatfill, who has denied any involvement.

Attorney General John Ashcroft stopped short of naming Hatfill a suspect. He describes Hatfill as a "person of interest." It's a term that is unfamiliar to veteran FBI agents and one that does not appear in the U.S. Attorneys Manual, the federal prosecutors' handbook.

Law enforcement officials say the focus on Hatfill has left the false impression that the investigation is narrowing. But, the officials say, FBI agents are almost fearful of ignoring any lead or crossing anyone off their list.

As a result of the attention, Hatfill was fired from Louisiana State University.

For the FBI, the anthrax attacks -- more than the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- have forced the agency to re-examine the way it approaches murder investigations. The basics no longer apply. Where exactly was the crime scene -- the victims' homes, the postal facilities that handled the anthrax letters, the tabloid headquarters in Florida, the Capitol?

Since the attacks, investigators have returned to all of the sites repeatedly.

"It's a complex crime, one that just needs time and patience to solve," Howard says.