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Last Updated

11 Apr 2003

Source: The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, April 11, 2003

Butler indicted in plague case


Thomas Butler, the Texas Tech professor who caused an international bioterrorism scare when he reported 30 vials of plague stolen, was indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury.

He faces 15 counts, including smuggling, lying to federal agents, illegally transporting biohazards and tax fraud.

Butler is accused of smuggling samples of Yersinia pestis, the organism that causes plague, aboard British Airways and American Airlines from Tanzania to London then to Lubbock in April 2002.

According to the indictment, Butler did not have proper permits or clearance to transport the samples and did not declare the bacteria to customs.

He is further charged with not properly identifying and packaging the specimens as required by federal law.

The indictment alleges Butler illegally transported the smuggled goods from Lubbock to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colo., in his private vehicle. Butler did not have a CDC permit for the transportation of YP, the indictment states.

He also is charged with lying to Texas Tech Health Sciences Center officials about the contents of his lab. According to witness statements, Butler denied having YP to laboratory safety officer Michael Jones.

According to the charges against him, Butler knowingly shipped 30 vials of YP via Federal Express to Tanzania without properly identifying the specimens and without an export license in September 2002.

Such an export requires approval from both the U.S. and Tanzanian governments, and Butler had neither, according to the indictment.

In that same transport, Butler is accused of filing a false export control document, identifying the YP as "laboratory materials" when he knew the shipment contained a government-regulated select agent.

According to the indictment, Butler defrauded the federal government of $39,693 by lying on his 2001 tax return.

The indictment alleges that Butler was paid $114,000 by two pharmaceutical companies and reported that income as business expenses to reduce his tax liability.

Butler also is charged with lying to FBI agents when he reported 30 samples of YP were stolen from his lab at TTUHSC on Jan. 13.

More than 60 federal, state and local investigators worked through the night of Jan. 14 in search of the missing vials. Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge called Mayor Marc McDougal to offer his assistance, and President Bush was briefed on the matter that morning.

In the early afternoon of Jan. 15, Butler admitted he lied to investigators and that he had destroyed the samples, according to a handwritten statement he submitted to the FBI.

Butler's attorney, Floyd Holder, previously told The Avalanche-Journal that Butler was transporting the plague samples he'd obtained from infected Tanzanians in preparation for an FDA study on new drugs to combat plague.

Holder said then that Butler brought the samples back "safely secured" in his luggage.

Holder said Thursday he was "disappointed" by the indictment.

"I think his trips to CDC and to USAMRIID (U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) were things he did out of sense of duty to this country, and it's a shame that he would be punished for that," Holder said.

Butler will be represented by Chuck Meadows of Dallas on the tax fraud allegations, Holder said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dick Baker, who is prosecuting the case, declined to comment.

Jane Boyle, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, praised the work of authorities in the investigation.

"This case is an excellent example of how, in the present climate, authorities at all levels of government are approaching their commitment to protect the public with cool heads and joined hearts," Boyle said in a prepared statement.

"As soon as the report of missing plague vials was relayed to the FBI from the Texas Tech Police Department, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies joined forces to cut to the heart of the matter and, within hours, were able to calm the public by declaring that the report of the missing vials was false," her statement said.

Tech officials declined to comment.

Butler, 61, faces a maximum of 74 years in prison and a $3.6 million fine if convicted on all counts, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Since the incident, Butler has been on strictly monitored pretrial release. He must wear an electronic monitor, is forbidden from access to the Tech campus or etiological agents and may not fly to or contact witnesses from Tanzania.

He remains on paid administrative leave from the university.