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Last Updated

18 Apr 2003

Source: The Miami Herald, April 18, 2003

Building in Boca, site of anthrax death, is sold


The American Media Inc. building in Boca Raton, which was ground zero in the great anthrax scare of 2001, has been sold. And the new owner plans to clean it up and lease it.

A company owned by David Rustine of Boca Raton purchased the building from AMI, publisher of The National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids, for $40,000. He estimates that the building will be worth $12 million to $15 million once it's cleaned up.

The cleanup would remove what the government considers a public health hazard. But it also may involve destroying AMI's peculiar piece of Americana: its library of tabloid photographs of politicians, space aliens and celebrities -- including a famous image of Elvis at Graceland in his coffin.

Rustine said Thursday that he has hired Marcor Remediation Inc., one of the companies that cleaned up the Hart Senate Office Building, to handle the decontamination.

''It's a beautiful building in a great location in an Arvida Commerce park right on the golf course,'' Rustine said. ``Once I clean it and remediate it, it will be an excellent investment.''

Any cleanup plan will have to be approved by the Palm Beach County Department of Public Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The building was quarantined by the government after AMI photo editor Bob Stevens (case 5) died of anthrax exposure in October 2001. Another AMI employee also was diagnosed with anthrax exposure, and traces of the bacterium were later found in the building. A major FBI investigation, and an international media frenzy, were soon centered on the place.

The case is still unsolved, but the FBI continues to work on it. Because it happened soon after Sept. 11, many people initially assumed a connection to al Qaeda terrorists. But later investigation led the FBI to suspect renegade scientists.

Among the many famous and infamous photos that may be lost are images showing Sen. Gary Hart and Donna Rice aboard the boat Monkey Business -- the snapshot that sank his promising presidential campaign -- and another of candidate Bill Clinton shaking hands with a space alien. And, of course, the Elvis photo.

''Much of that is still in there,'' AMI spokesman Gerald McKelvey said. ``If some of it can be recovered that's a plus, but it [the building] was sold with the contents.''

AMI had been prepared to give the building to the federal government just to be free of the responsibility for cleaning it. McKelvey said the company had received quotes of $9 million to $10 million for the cleanup, with no guarantees of success.

The federal government was prepared to take the building off AMI's hands if a buyer was not found. Federal estimates for the cleanup ranged from $10 million to $100 million. Officials said the estimates were so broad because the government has little experience cleaning up anthrax contamination.

In any case, the issue is now moot. The cost of the cleanup now becomes the responsibility of Rustine's company. Rustine said he believes he can have the building cleaned up for significantly less than $10 million, but he did not have an exact figure on Thursday.

Rustine said he is confident he will be able to lease the 67,000-square-foot building once Marcor has cleaned it up.

Marcor has cleaned up everything from anthrax contamination at the Hart Senate Office Building to leaking underground gas tanks to asbestos and lead paint aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.

''It's something that certainly can be cleaned,'' Rustine said. ``I think we will be able to lease it, and we'll make someone an attractive deal. After we clean it, it probably will be cleaner than 80 to 90 percent of the buildings in Boca Raton.''