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Last Updated

17 Jan 2003

Source: The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, January 17, 2003

Professor admits to lie about plague


The world renowned researcher who turned an international spotlight on Lubbock with claims of missing samples of plague admitted Wednesday to federal authorities that he lied about what happened to the bacterial agent, court records show.

Dr. Thomas C. Butler declined to answer questions from the media Thursday as he was led to and from his initial court appearance at the federal building.

He was arrested Wednesday night on charges of providing false information to a federal agent.

According to the federal complaint, Butler admitted in a handwritten statement to misleading officials about 30 vials of bacterial agent he suggested may have been stolen from the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center lab as early as Jan. 11.

"On January 13, '03, I met with the laboratory safety officer Dr. Jones and told him that I had noticed for the first time that the 30 vials of the plague bacteria were missing. ... Because I knew that the pathogen was destroyed and there was no threat to the public, I provided an inaccurate explanation to Dr. Jones and did not realize it would require such an extensive investigation," the statement reads in part.

Despite the statement, Butler's attorney, Floyd Holder, said his client is innocent.

"My client intends to plead not guilty, and he's looking forward to proving to a jury that he's innocent," Holder said. "My client is looking forward to his day in court."

Butler is being held without bond at the Lubbock County Jail pending a detention hearing Jan. 21.

If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and maximum fine of $250,000, said Kathy Colvin, public affairs officer with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Dallas.

About 60 investigators from various agencies converged Tuesday on the Health Sciences Center to search through the night for the vials of bacteria, which can be used to create bubonic or pneumonic plague.

Tech officials reported the samples missing to authorities that afternoon.

National and international media reported throughout Wednesday that investigators were searching for plague samples reported missing from the Lubbock lab.

At an afternoon news conference, officials said the vials "had been accounted for," but declined further explanation.

Butler was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of criminal proceedings, said Tech Chancellor David Smith.

"If he is found guilty, we'll have to take definitive action," Smith said.

Morris News Service contributed to this report.