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Last Updated

22 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Post, August 27, 2002.

FBI Returns to Tabloid Offices In Search of New Anthrax Leads

By Susan Schmidt, Washington Post Staff Writer

The FBI announced yesterday that it will again search the Florida office of American Media Inc., hoping that new techniques will reveal how deadly anthrax spores entered the headquarters of the tabloid publisher last fall.

The search, which should begin no later than Wednesday, will focus on finding a letter or other method of delivery as well as collecting additional spores from the Boca Raton office, which has been shuttered and quarantined since it was contaminated with anthrax spores last fall, officials said yesterday.

Photo editor Robert Stevens (case 5) died of anthrax, and another AMI employee, mailroom worker Ernesto Blanco (case 7), became severely ill but recovered. Stevens was the first of five people to die in the series of anthrax attacks last fall.

The FBI searched the mailroom and the workstations of affected employees after the attack. It found anthrax spores but no letters like the ones that emerged in some of the subsequent anthrax attacks in New York and Washington. It is not known whether the AMI anthrax spores were delivered by mail or in some other fashion.

Officials said yesterday that they will try to locate high concentrations of spores that could lead them to the letter or another delivery mechanism.

They plan to use the hazardous environment protocols developed to search through congressional mail quarantined last fall after a letter laden with anthrax spores arrived in the office of Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). That search -- which involved careful sampling of bins of mail to seek out any additional contaminated letters -- led to the discovery of an intact letter addressed to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) containing almost a gram of anthrax spores.

"We hope to do a very comprehensive, detailed assessment of the spore contamination throughout the entire building," FBI deputy lab director Dwight Adams said at a Florida news conference announcing the renewed AMI search.

AMI's office was shut down after employees were found to have inhaled the deadly spores.

Adams said the FBI particularly wants to assess spore distribution in the AMI mailroom. And, he said, the FBI is looking for a large quantity of spores to compare them to the spores found in the Leahy and Daschle letters.

Officials said they hope the search, which is expected to take about two weeks, will generate new leads in the anthrax probe. Local authorities stressed that investigators will not pose a danger to the community by reentering the AMI building.

In recent weeks, media attention has been focused on FBI searches of the home of Steven J. Hatfill, a former government scientist involved in bioterror research who has vigorously asserted his innocence. Yesterday, officials said in response to questions that the AMI search is not related to the investigation of Hatfill.

"This has nothing to do with Mr. Hatfill. This is an ongoing criminal investigation, and ... the entry is being made in furtherance of that criminal investigation," said Hector Pesquera, special agent in charge of the FBI's Miami field office.

Adams said the new inspection methods will allow for thousands of samples to be taken. Back in October, he said, such an effort would have overwhelmed any public health laboratory. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service will assist in the AMI search.

Since its hurried exit last October, AMI has published its six supermarket tabloids, including the National Enquirer, Globe and Weekly World News, from other offices in Florida.

"It's almost the anniversary of Bob Stevens's death and the family really wants to know who's responsible," David Pecker, AMI's chief executive, said yesterday. "I'm hoping that they really can find something."