about Epidemiology & the department

Epidemiology academic information

Epidemiology faculty

Epidemilogy resources

sites of interest to Epidemiology professionals

Last Updated

11 May 2003

Source: Washington Post, May 11, 2003

New Find Reignites Anthrax Probe

Evidence From Pond May Indicate Killer's Method

By Marilyn W. Thompson, Washington Post Staff Writer

The FBI has developed a new theory on a central mystery of the 2001 anthrax attacks after finding evidence in a Frederick, Md., pond that may suggest how an ingenious criminal could have packed deadly anthrax spores into envelopes without killing or sickening himself, according to sources close to the investigation.

A piece of equipment and other evidence recovered this winter from ice-covered ponds in Frederick Municipal Forest have reinvigorated the 18-month-old case, leading officials to explore a novel theory with shades of science fiction. Some involved in the case believe that the killer may have waded into shallow water to delicately manipulate anthrax bacteria into envelopes, working within a partly submerged airtight chamber. When finished, the killer could have easily hidden the evidence by simply dumping contaminated equipment and clothing into the pond.

Publicly, the FBI has said nothing about material that divers recovered during the elaborate search missions in December and January, which involved cutting through thick ice atop about a dozen spring-fed ponds on the city-owned parkland. Debra Weierman, media coordinator for the FBI's Washington Field Office, which supervises the case, declined to comment on the findings or on any law enforcement theories about how the crimes might have been carried out.

But sources close to the case said the discoveries were so compelling that the FBI now plans to drain one of the ponds in another search for sunken evidence. The FBI has notified the city of Frederick and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources that it will begin the operation by June 1 and expects to pump thousands of gallons of water from a single pond into the others and a nearby reservoir. Additional agents have been assigned to the case, code-named Amerithrax.

Two sources familiar with the items recovered from the pond described a clear box, with holes that could accommodate gloves to protect the user as he worked. Also recovered were vials wrapped in plastic.

Not everyone involved in the case subscribes to the theory. Some believe that the killer could have completed the task on land and simply dumped materials into the pond to avoid detection.

These investigators contend that the water theory is the result of the FBI's interest in one subject, Steven J. Hatfill, a medical doctor and bioterrorism expert who formerly worked as a researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has described Hatfill as "a person of interest" in the investigation.

Hatfill has a varied background in science and medicine that includes research for NASA and exploration in Antarctica. On a résumé he sent several years ago to federal agencies, Hatfill, a former member of the Rhodesian special forces who received medical training in South Africa, lists a postgraduate diploma in diving and underwater medicine from a South African naval training institute.

Hatfill's attorney, Thomas Connolly, called the water theory "far-fetched" and said Hatfill had nothing to do with the anthrax crimes.

The evidence found in the pond has buoyed the FBI's hopes for resolution of the baffling case, which claimed five lives, sickened 13 other people and exposed thousands more to the lethal bacteria. The attacks involved a series of letters mailed in pre-stamped envelopes to media outlets in Florida and New York and to the offices of Sens. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). While en route, the letters passed through various post offices and postal distribution centers along the East Coast and left a trail of contamination.

The five people who died from inhalation anthrax included two postal workers at the Brentwood postal facility in Washington (cases 15 and 16), a Florida photojournalist (case 5), a New York hospital worker (case 22) and a 94-year-old woman in Connecticut (case 23).

Entering the water to manipulate virulent anthrax bacteria would provide some degree of natural protection from finely ground spores, which disperse in the air and can live for decades in the soil. But expert opinions vary on whether spores from contaminated equipment could later be found in a natural body of water.

Several scientists suggested that the spores would likely disperse and be difficult to trace, but they said it would be wise to test sediment at the bottom of the pond for the possible presence of hardy microbes.

The FBI's theory could explain why, after numerous searches of homes, buildings and open land, investigators have failed to locate any sign of anthrax contamination. It would suggest that the criminal had experience doing complicated manual tasks in water and was highly skilled in the use of small laboratory tools to work within an airtight glove box or bag.

Some FBI officials involved in the case have theorized that the killer could have put both dry envelopes and secured anthrax powder into an airtight, waterproof chamber, sealed it shut, then stood in the water while filling the envelopes. When finished, the envelopes could be secured inside layers of zip-lock plastic bags and removed from the protective chamber.

The most commonly used devices for handling dangerous pathogens are known as glove boxes or bags. They feature polyurethane gloves built into the chambers. Scientists usually wear additional layers of gloves for added protection.

The devices come in all sizes and range in price from simple models that cost less than $150 to custom-designed varieties that are priced at $10,000 or more. The Justice Department secured the sales records of major U.S. glove box and bag manufacturers soon after the anthrax attacks occurred.

The FBI has come under criticism for the pace of the investigation, which has involved dozens of agents and cutting-edge laboratory analysis.

The pond findings, the sources said, offer the first possible physical evidence in a case that, thus far, has been built almost exclusively on circumstantial clues considered too tenuous to lead to criminal charges.

But the case still has significant weaknesses, the sources said. A major problem is that the FBI has found no evidence linking anyone to the actual mailing of the letters. The two most deadly letters, to Daschle and Leahy, are believed to have been mailed from a highly visible mailbox in the village of Princeton, N.J., just across the street from the Princeton University campus. The box, which tested positive for anthrax, was removed from its concrete footings in August 2002 and shipped to Army labs for testing.

The water theory has increased investigators' interest in Hatfill, who formerly lived in an apartment outside Fort Detrick's main gate that is about eight miles from the ponds.

Based on a tip, FBI teams rushed to seal off the municipal forest in late December and sent divers into the ponds, which were created decades ago to provide water in case of forest fires. The FBI said at the time that it was looking for equipment that might have been used in the crimes. Since then, a team of FBI agents has returned occasionally to the site.

The pond searches represented another flurry of activity in an investigation that had appeared stalled.

Soon after the anthrax letters surfaced, the FBI released a psychological profile of the likely suspect, describing a disgruntled, middle-aged white male with scientific training and some experience working in government research labs. Agents scrambled to interview a short list of people who fit the profile, then seemed to focus on Hatfill. After Ashcroft called Hatfill a "person of interest" in the probe, Hatfill held two news conferences to adamantly proclaim his innocence.

He remains under round-the-clock FBI surveillance, and his attorney, Connolly, said he has refused recent approaches from the FBI. Connolly said Hatfill cannot find a job because of the unjustified FBI scrutiny.

Connolly said it would not be unusual for the FBI to find scientific equipment discarded in waters around Frederick, which is home to many research labs and biotech companies. He suggested that equipment dredged from the pond could have been discarded by a drug dealer operating a methamphetamine lab.

The FBI also has questioned Hatfill's associates about a device he used in much of his recent research. Hatfill had federal backing for projects using the "rotary cell culture system," a small device developed by NASA researchers to rapidly culture cells. It is marketed by Synthecon, a small Texas company.

While at USAMRIID between 1997 and 1999, Hatfill had the backing of a federal health agency for a project in which he sought to use the culturing device to develop a "Universal Pathogen System." He hoped to grow pathogens that had proved difficult to culture, including possibly the smallpox virus, according to his proposal. Hatfill said the project would help researchers trying to quickly analyze emerging infectious diseases.

Roger Akers, a Synthecon vice president and a friend of Hatfill's who worked with him on an unpublished bioterrorism thriller, said he was questioned by FBI agents in recent months about whether Hatfill could have used the rotary cell culture device to grow anthrax bacteria. Akers said he found the questions silly, because anthrax bacteria are easy to grow without the aid of such sophisticated equipment.

Akers said Hatfill was trained in the use of the cell culture system, which he employed both at USAMRIID and during a previous government research appointment at a division of the National Institutes of Health.

The FBI has reviewed the manuscript of Hatfill's novel, which is on file at the U.S. Copyright Office.

Staff writers Allan Lengel and David Snyder contributed to this report.