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Last Updated

29 Jul 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2003

Anthrax Case Is a Lure to Persons of Interest

The unsolved 2001 attacks have been a fertile field for conspiracy theorists, political radicals and other amateur sleuths.

By Richard B. Schmitt, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON A few weeks ago, in a creek not far from his suburban Maryland home, Pete Velis tackled one of the many unsolved mysteries of the 2001 anthrax attacks.

How did the perpetrator transfer deadly anthrax spores to four envelopes linked to the outbreak without exposing himself in the process?

A recent theory given weight after the FBI dredged a pond near an Army biodefense lab where a "person of interest" in the case once worked is that the transfer occurred underwater, with the help of an airtight plastic box.

So Velis picked up plastic storage containers of several sizes from a hardware store and, accompanied by a reporter for a local radio station, trekked to Rock Creek. There he methodically submerged the boxes, one by one.

His conclusions: 1)Tupperware floats, and 2) Steven J. Hatfill is not guilty.

"Even the shoe box required strong pressure to put underwater and full pressure to keep underwater," Velis said. "You could manipulate something," such as pouring anthrax from a container into an envelope, "but only crudely Now we know it does not work."

Despite what the FBI says, Hatfill once a top researcher at the Army lab near Frederick, Md. is not the only person of interest in the case.

The anthrax attacks have been a magnet for conspiracy theorists, political radicals and retirees with more than a little extra time on their hands.

The sleuthing, much of it played out on the Internet, started almost immediately after the October 2001 attacks. Even now, as the case threatens to drag on unsolved into its third year, there is no apparent end to it. Twists, such as news reports this month that Hatfill once helped build a mock mobile bioweapons lab as part of a military training exercise, continue to give people something to talk about.

"It is a fascinating mystery," said Ed Lake, a retired computer-systems analyst in Racine, Wis. "There really is a lot of information out there. Everybody comes at it from a different angle."

Before the anthrax attacks broke, Lake spent his time writing screenplays and honing a growing reputation among cyber-sleuths for exposing fake photos of nude celebrities. Now he runs a Web site called The Fake Detective. He says he has received more than 11,000 e-mails from people interested in the anthrax case, and corresponds with a dozen who think they know who did it.

He says a tracking service he uses for his Web site shows that the FBI and the Defense Intelligence Agency are regular visitors.

The attacker theories "range from scientists working for pharmaceutical companies to military people to biology professors to the mayor of a Texas city," Lake said. A few weeks ago, he said, he got a package in his regular mail with 47 photocopied pages purporting to provide a road map to a suspect in Louisville, Ky. although a large chunk of the material turned out to be sports scores.

Personally, Lake thinks Hatfill is getting a bum rap. His money is on a nuclear chemist who is now working in a bowling alley in Milwaukee.

What is known is that 21 months ago someone sent a series of anthrax-tainted letters that killed five people and sickened others in Florida, Washington and New York.

The list of potential culprits has never been long. While the bacteria that cause anthrax are fairly easy to grow, only several dozen individuals in the country would have had the knowledge and ability to mill anthrax spores into the fine powder that was detected in the bioterror attacks.

While not ruling out the possibility that the attack was coordinated with a foreign terrorist network such as Al Qaeda, many people think it was an inside job, perpetrated by a misguided patriot who believed the U.S. government was ill-prepared for a bioterrorism attack and needed a wake-up call.

Proponents of that view include A.J. Weberman, who made a name for himself in the 1960s going through the trash of public figures, including Bob Dylan, for journalistic clues. He now helps run a group called the Jewish Defense Organization, which has fingered Hatfill in part because Hatfill spent many years living in apartheid-era South Africa.

"When you look at Hatfill's background, there are just too many coincidences," said Weberman, who is putting the finishing touches on the manuscript of a book about Hatfill called "The Bioevangelist." He added: "It is a tremendous circumstantial case against this guy."

Among his favorite clues is that Hatfill once lived in Zimbabwe, near an area known as Greendale the name of a nonexistent New Jersey elementary school that is listed as the return address on two of the anthrax-laced letters.

Hatfill emphatically denies any involvement in the attacks, said his spokesman, Patrick Clawson a former television and radio reporter who was working during the anthrax attacks for a station whose major on-air personality was conservative commentator Oliver North.

For starters, Clawson said, Hatfill plans to contest a ticket he got in May after, by his account, an FBI agent tailing him ran over his foot when he confronted the agent. A hearing has been set for Aug. 15 in District of Columbia Traffic Court, the closest thing to a trial in the anthrax case so far.

Through a spokeswoman, Debbie Weierman, the FBI declined comment on the investigation. The government has never said Hatfill is a suspect in the case, and officials have interviewed scores of other people.

Interest in Hatfill is derived in part from his work in the late 1990s at the nation's primary biodefense lab, the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, at Ft. Detrick, Md. Ft. Detrick was the main repository of the virulent strain of anthrax used in the attacks.

Former Hatfill associates say they considered him to be dedicated, affable and a little eccentric, someone infatuated with intrigue and who promoted a sense of mystery about his past.

He grew up in the Midwest and attended a small Methodist college in Kansas before shoving off for South Africa, where he got his medical degree and developed an in-depth knowledge of Ebola and other deadly viruses that cause hemorrhagic fever. He says he never worked with anthrax, although he befriended a scientist who was the preeminent expert on turning anthrax spores into a usable weapon.

Federal agents, who have been following Hatfill for nearly a year, have searched his apartment three times and taken samples of his blood.

Last month, they drained a man-made pond in the Frederick area where they had discovered over the winter what appeared to be part of a plastic glove box that scientists use in lab work. The latest dredging operation turned up "a street sign, some bottles and a tire," according to Nancy Poss, the city's public information officer.

Hatfill has also acknowledged to investigators that he once used a commonly prescribed anthrax antibiotic for a nasal infection.

Students of the case also consider it significant that during an early interview Hatfill had with federal agents, a government bloodhound that had been exposed to the anthrax letters after they were decontaminated became animated in the scientist's presence. But that, Clawson said, is only because Hatfill played up to the animal.

The focus lately has been on Hatfill's work for a Pentagon contractor, Science Applications International Corp., after leaving Ft. Detrick. The New York Times recently reported that while working for Science Applications, Hatfill helped build a mobile germ lab to be used to help train U.S. troops looking to detect and disarm the sorts of labs that Iraq and other countries were suspected of building.

Some government officials and people close to the case have said the lab never became functional and indeed, according to one person, was stocked with a few stuffed guinea pigs for laughs.

Velis, the out-of-the-box thinker, is a student of other unresolved mysteries. For example, he firmly believes the CIA was involved in plotting the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the shelves in his home are stuffed with books, reports and declassified documents on the case.

The operator of a family-owned insurance brokerage, Velis said he started checking out the anthrax case because he felt that Hatfill was being denied the presumption of innocence by the government and the media.

Velis first surfaced in the case in August 2002, when he bought two full-page ads in the Washington Times, declaring Hatfill to be "totally clean." He firmly believes the FBI is attempting to "fit all the evidence around Hatfill to the exclusion of other, better suspects."

The plastic tub test isn't the only contribution of empirical research Velis has made to the case. Another enduring riddle is how the culprit got the anthrax into the envelope without leaving his DNA from licking the envelopes. Some have suggested a hypodermic needle may have been the vehicle.

So Velis ordered some shark cartilage from a health-food supplier and pulverized it into a fine powder. He then put some of the powder into a needle ordinarily used to fill computer printer tanks. He says such needles are actually slightly thicker than standard hypodermic needles.

Will a hypodermic needle transfer a powder? Not according to Velis.

Such experiments may sound trivial, but, he says, they represent the kind of common-sense thinking that has been lacking in the case so far.