UCONN STUDENT DISPUTES ANTHRAX CASE
15 Nov 2002
Source: Hartford Courant, July 24, 2002.
UConn Student Disputes Anthrax Case
Says He Wasn't Told To Destroy Pathogen
By GRACE E. MERRITT, Courant Staff Writer
Tomas Foral says he was never ordered by University of Connecticut professors to destroy the vials of anthrax he found last fall, and the only reason he saved them was to use them as a comparative reference in scientific research.
Foral, 26, a graduate student researching the West Nile virus, said he was bewildered that his actions set off a grand jury investigation and dismayed to find himself charged Monday with unlawful possession of a deadly pathogen.
"I thought maybe later on, I could come back and compare [the anthrax] to other strains, that I might isolate it and compare the strain," he said Tuesday from his home in West Hartford. "Researchers do this all the time: They save samples of tissues for future research."
Foral said he found several vials of anthrax from a cow necropsy in a basement freezer and moved them to an emergency freezer upstairs in the laboratory. He disputed the claims of university officials that he was ordered to destroy the vials.
"I really wasn't ordered to destroy the samples," he said. "I wasn't told anything. There was no order to destroy the samples. I don't remember exactly what I was told in connection with that."
Foral said he has no idea what evidence federal officials might have against him and said he never expected that he would be charged.
"I'm more surprised by that and I'm a little bit dismayed because I did everything to cooperate," he said. "I don't know what their basis is for going forward. I don't understand it."
Federal officials are offering Foral an opportunity to have the charges dismissed if he completes a "pretrial diversion program" designed by probation officials. Foral said he had no choice but to accept the government's offer because he could not afford to fight it. He is one of the first to be charged with a biological crime under the USA Patriot Act signed into law Oct. 26. Foral said he moved the vials shortly after the Patriot Act was enacted, though he said he was unaware of the new law. Federal officials were tipped off by an anonymous student who said that someone at UConn may be storing anthrax. The anthrax Foral had was contained in infected cow tissue collected during the 1960s, and was not the weapons-grade powder form sent through the mail that killed five people nationwide, including Ottilie Lundgren (case 23), 94, of Oxford.
Foral described the timing of the UConn anthrax incident as "unfavorable." He wondered whether investigators might have been driven by emotion in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorism and the ensuing anthrax attacks. To date, no one has been charged in the anthrax incidents.
He said it has been stressful trying to continue his research into the West Nile virus during the federal investigation.
"It certainly closed down my research for a while and we lost a lot of time and effort," he said. "It's been a little bit stressful, but I try to go on and do the work. ... I hope fate stands by me."
He apologized to his colleagues in the lab, saying he regretted any time and effort lost on their research when the lab was closed to be cleaned and inventoried last fall.
Foral came from the Czech Republic with his family to the United States when he was 9 years old and settled in the Hartford area. His family subsequently moved to West Hartford, where they have lived for 15 years, he said.
Foral, who is a U.S. citizen, attended Kingswood-Oxford School and went on to Brown University, where he completed the pre-med program and earned a degree in art history. He said he hopes to make a career in public health.
When he's not in the lab, Foral works in the computer department at the State Library in Hartford. He is also enrolled in UConn's ROTC program and in a National Guard infantry battalion in New Britain.
Regardless of the outcome, Foral said, he is looking forward to closing this chapter of his life.
"I want to finish this program and get on with life," he said.