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Last Updated

20 Jan 2003

Source: The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, January 20, 2003

Family, co-workers speak out for accused professor


Knowing his work could better prepare the United States against a possible biological attack filled Dr. Thomas Butler with pride, according to his family.

"He's perhaps the most patriotic man I know," Butler's son, Philip, 19, said Sunday night.

Thomas Butler, 61, was the researcher in charge of a potentially dangerous biological agent reported missing Tuesday from the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center. He was arrested Wednesday night on a charge of making a false statement to a federal agent.

Butler's report that 30 vials of an agent that could be developed into bubonic plague were missing from a laboratory set off an intensive FBI investigation overnight Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon, federal and local officials said the vials had been accounted for.

According to court records, Butler later admitted to fabricating that story to hide the fact that he had accidentally destroyed the samples.

Butler's two oldest children have returned to Lubbock from their respective colleges to support their dad and other family members.

In a family statement released Sunday night, Philip Butler said: "We deeply appreciate the outpouring of support that we have received from throughout the community and we are all standing by him with pride and optimism."

Philip Butler is a junior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his brother, Thomas, 21, is a senior at Stanford University in California. Both are studying biology.

They have two other siblings, Kristina, 13, and Edward, 5. Their mother is Elisabeth.

Philip Butler said the family spoke to his father Sunday morning through the glass at the Lubbock County Jail. "But we have had contact with him before that," he said.

He added, "He's a very loving father, and nothing means more to him than his family."

While Butler remains jailed without bond, many of his longtime colleagues and faculty members at Tech have rallied support for him.

"He was very well respected. A lot of people are upset," Tech professor Dr. Ted Reid said Sunday. "To see a person hauled off in chains in front of TV cameras and denied bail has a very chilling effect. It's very upsetting."

He added, "We feel this was a totally overblown situation that's totally out of hand that doesn't represent what happened."

Reid holds a doctorate degree in chemistry and is a professor of ophthalmology, visual science, cell biology and biochemistry.

"We think reason has to prevail in this case," he said. "I think people were concerned because they didn't get enough proper information. This is a trivial problem.

"It's scary. It's upsetting. I don't think they've really formulated a way to deal with problems and tell the minor problems from the major problems. This is a minor problem that's been handled with a wartime mentality," Reid said.

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

Butler's attorney, Floyd Holder of Lubbock, has said his client intends to plead not guilty. Holder declined further comment Sunday.

Dr. Lorenz Lutherer, chairman of the executive committee of the faculty council, said his committee was present at an informational meeting Friday at Tech's medical school, but did not call the meeting.

The council represents the general faculty, however, and was asked to deliver a message of concern to Butler's family.

"I think there was a lot of faculty that expressed their concern for his current situation who have known and worked with him for many years who respect him as a professional, a person and a faculty member," said Lutherer, a physician who holds a doctorate degree in physiology.

Though Lutherer, who is a professor of internal medicine, didn't work directly with Butler, he said he knew him to be "a good physician and a well-respected researcher for years."

Lutherer said many faculty members "consider him to be a friend and a respected colleague.

"It's very difficult for us to know exactly what happened, but here's a man who is respected in his field who's all of a sudden in jail."

Lutherer emphasized that the bacteria posed no threat to public health.

"The plague materials are not a threat to anybody. There's a lot of prairie dogs in Lubbock, Texas, that have the plague," he said. "It's well-documented that this material is not posing a risk to the general public."

Health officials say 10 to 20 people in the United States contract plague each year, usually through infected fleas or rodents. The plague can be treated with antibiotics, but about one in seven U.S. cases is fatal.

A detention and preliminary hearing for Butler is scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday in the courtroom of federal Magistrate Nancy Koenig. The judge will decide then whether to set a bond for Butler's release.

The U.S. Attorney's Office plans to oppose Butler's release. Court documents filed Thursday said Butler's actions present a risk to public safety.

Reid said the situation has caused concern on many fronts.

"He's labeled now as a threat to the public, a flight risk," Reid said. "To see a faculty member hauled of in chains and accused ... is appalling.

"This is a system that's out of control right now, and it's destroying this person's life."