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Last Updated

22 Aug 2003

Source: New York Times, August 14, 2002.

Anthrax Finding Prompts Questions in Princeton About Scientist


PRINCETON, N.J., Aug. 13 -- Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, postal inspectors and police officers fanned out in downtown Princeton today, seeking links between a germ warfare expert and a single curbside mailbox here that was found last week to contain anthrax spores.

According to people whom the agents and officers interviewed, the investigators were looking for a connection between the mailbox and Dr. Steven J. Hatfill of Frederick, Md., a biological warfare expert who over the weekend criticized the F.B.I. for seeming to implicate him in last year's deadly anthrax mailings, which killed five people.

Dr. Hatfill has denied any involvement in the mail attacks.

Residents said agents showed a photograph that they recognized as being Dr. Hatfill from reports last weekend in the news media.

Anthony Federico, chief of the Princeton Borough police, said the F.B.I. agents had been in the borough's neighborhoods since Monday. He said he expected them to complete their rounds, with the help of his officers, before long.

"They're just going around and talking to people," Chief Federico said.

On Monday, Gov. James E. McGreevey said that anthrax spores had been found in a mailbox on the corner of Nassau and Bank Streets, opposite the Princeton University campus. The box's mail went into the Hamilton Township sorting station, now closed, which processed the anthrax-contaminated mail that was sent last fall to Senator Tom Daschle, the NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and The New York Post.

Since Mr. McGreevey's announcement, state officials have stressed that the tainted box was removed last Thursday and posed no health hazard to the public. But people working in offices near the corner, who have been using the mailbox for months since last fall's anthrax attacks, wondered today why all this was coming to light only now.

"I've been sending things to my mother, my mother-in-law, my business associates," said Ross N. A. Woolley, an architect with Woolley & Morris. "And they're just getting around to testing this mailbox?"

Mr. Woolley said the Postal Service had "no credibility" with him anymore. "They can write in the paper there's no problem all they want," he said.

Mr. Woolley said a postal inspector had shown him and an office worker, Mark Nye, a picture of Dr. Hatfill, and had asked the two if they had seen the scientist around Princeton. Both said they told the inspector that they had not.

Clifton R. Lacy, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, said in an interview today that the chances of mail being contaminated by the spores found in the mailbox were "vanishingly small."

"I think the most important take-home message from this is that since October of 2001, there have been no new cases of anthrax in humans in New Jersey," Dr. Lacy said.

A question left unanswered today was whether the spores found in the mailbox were genetically related to those found at the Hamilton sorting center in October, or whether they were a new strain. Dr. Lacy referred those questions to the United States attorney's office in Newark. The office did not return a phone call.

Dr. Lacy said his department's laboratories received swabs of the interiors of about 600 New Jersey mailboxes in the weeks before last Thursday, when the swab from the Princeton mailbox tested positive for spores. He said he did not know when the swabs were taken, or whether the recent arrival of the test suggested that the mailboxes had only recently been examined.