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Last Updated

16 Jan 2003

Source: The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, January 16, 2003

Plague probe leads to arrest

Professor accused of false statement


Dr. Thomas C. Butler, the researcher in charge of the potentially dangerous biological agent that was reported missing Tuesday, was arrested Wednesday night, accused of making a false statement to a federal agent.

Butler told the FBI the 30 vials under his control were missing as of Saturday, but "he knew they were destroyed prior to that date," said Dick Baker of the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Butler, who has been involved in plague research for more than 25 years and is internationally recognized in the field, knowingly and willingly made the false statement Tuesday, Baker said.

Butler is scheduled to make his initial appearance today before federal magistrate Nancy M. Koenig.

A belief that the 30 vials were missing from a Texas Tech Health Sciences Center laboratory set off an intensive FBI investigation Tuesday before fears of public safety were calmed by local officials Wednesday afternoon.

Tech officials declined to comment Wednesday night about the earlier events or the arrest.

The vials contained an agent that can be developed into bubonic plague, so the reports of missing bacteria were taken seriously by the highest levels of national security.

Lubbock Mayor Marc McDougal said he received a telephone call Wednesday from Tom Ridge, head of the Department of Homeland Security, who offered contact information and assistance from his Washington office.

President Bush and Congress created the Homeland Security Department as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Butler is a professor and chief of the infectious disease division in the department of internal medicine at the TTUHSC. The research under Butler's control was intended to determine if new antibiotics are effective against plague.

Butler was in his office Wednesday but did not return calls. There was no answer at his home Wednesday night.

A TTUHSC spokeswoman said Butler has been affiliated with the university since at least 1987.

Tech officials said the bacteria samples were reported as unaccounted for by Butler on Tuesday. The samples were kept in a locked area in Butler's lab on the fourth floor at TTUHSC, which is not a high-traffic area.

Butler kept logs on batches of samples, and one batch was reported missing, The Avalanche-Journal learned.

Butler was the only person who legally had access to the bacteria, classified as a select agent that has to be registered with the International Biohazards Committee, an internal committee at Tech, as well as with the federal government.

Butler obtained his undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University and served an internal medicine residency there in 1969, followed by an infectious diseases fellowship in 1973. He received his medical degree from Vanderbilt in 1967.

According to law enforcement and TTUHSC sources, the vials first appeared to be missing Monday, and possibly even as early as Saturday.

Tech officials refused several times to explain the delay in reporting the unaccounted for bioagents to authorities.

Dr. Richard Homan, dean of the Texas Tech School of Medicine, said he reported the matter to authorities as soon as he learned the vials were unaccounted for at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.

He would not confirm or deny if the vials were unaccounted for sooner, adding that the question needed to be answered by the FBI.

Police Chief Claude Jones said 60 investigators from various agencies worked from about 8 p.m. Tuesday through the night to track down the bacteria samples.

TTUHSC administrators had no reason to believe the samples were intentionally removed from Butler's laboratory, the university said. However, because of concern for the potential misuse of the agent, they determined it would be prudent to notify the appropriate health and law enforcement agencies.

"We're very pleased with the outcome here today," Smith said at midafternoon, before Butler's arrest. "The real issue is of public health and public safety. I'm sorry we had to test the system here today. But we did, and it worked.

"What we wanted to do was not spread panic. We did know about the bug. We wanted to be very careful about the message that was delivered."

Homan said the bacteria form of plague being used for research at TTUHSC "was not weaponized in any way."

Dr. David Waagner, associate professor of pediatrics and chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at TTUHSC, said research, such as that conducted by Butler, is important to the development of antibiotics.

"Because of bioterrorism concerns, this research is important so that we can look at the organism and see what antibiotics work against them," Waagner said. "Plague is a disease of ancient time, and it's good to look at the effectiveness of new antibiotics."