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Last Updated

01 Mar 2003

Source: The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, February 28, 2003

Sworn statements point to deception about plague vials


When Thomas Butler led Donald Wesson into his lab Jan. 14, he took Wesson straight to the rack where he kept his samples of plague. The first three rows were empty 30 vials were gone.

"It looks like someone specifically took these 30 and left the other eight behind," Butler told Wesson. "Someone must've known what they were looking for."

Wesson, chairman of the department of internal medicine at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, was checking Butler's lab after Butler walked into Wesson's office that day with a shocking report.

"Some of my plague samples are missing and I think have been stolen," Butler told Wesson, according to Wesson's sworn affidavit.

When Wesson told Butler they had to notify the proper authorities, Butler disagreed.

"I finally had to tell Dr. Butler that he had to realize the potential for harm and the implications if the plague samples had actually been stolen. I told him, 'We need to let everybody know,' " Wesson said.

"Everybody" rapidly converged on the Health Sciences Center to search for the missing vials of yersinia pestis, or YP, the organism that causes bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic plague.

More than 60 local, state and federal investigators worked through the night Jan. 14 to track down the vials of plague that Butler told his superiors could be "freeze-dried, preserved in a broth, aerosolized and could be processed into a weaponized agent."

Trail of deception?

Wesson's statements and others contained in affidavits obtained by The Avalanche-Journal through the Texas Public Information Act point to a pattern of deception and contradictions regarding the possession of human-derived plague samples stored at Butler's laboratory at Tech's HSC.

"I think that everyone involved in this knows that we were just flat skunked," said Pat Campbell, general counsel for Tech. "This caught everybody off guard the fact that he misinformed us on various forms and possessed a select agent he wasn't authorized to have and told us he didn't have it."

At the center of this case is Butler, the world-renowned plague researcher charged with lying to federal agents when he reported those 30 samples stolen. The afternoon of Jan. 15, Butler admitted in a written statement that he had destroyed the samples.

Campbell said Butler told authorities that Butler had burned the samples.

Butler's attorney, Floyd Holder, maintains that Butler did not pull a hoax.

"I don't see any lying there," Holder said. "I don't understand how you can come up with that. I mean, they have just absolutely taken one thing at one time and proved it was something else later on, right?"

Yersinia pestis is considered a select agent by the federal government. Bioterrorism experts say it easily can be converted into a weapon that could cause outbreaks of the deadliest form of the disease, the airborne pneumonic variety.

Butler is free on $100,000 bond and strict conditions set by federal court. He is on paid administrative leave from the university and is barred from the Tech campus.

Curious chain of events

The following statements and accounts were taken from sworn affidavits obtained by The A-J.

Butler said in a January 2002 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that he "did not have any select agents," Michael Jones, TTUHSC's manager of laboratory safety, told authorities.

During a second CDC survey, in August 2002, Butler responded that he did have YP, Jones said.

"I found this highly unusual, particularly since it was a contradiction to the January 2002 response," Jones said.

When Jones pressed Butler about the response a few days before Sept. 9, 2002, Butler told him he had no samples, "No, not at this time, but I have worked with it in the past."

Holder has said that Butler brought human-derived YP samples in his luggage aboard commercial airlines from Tanzania to Tech in April 2002 while on sabbatical.

On Sept. 13, 2002, Jones received a request from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, in Fort Detrick, Md., for samples of YP from Butler.

Jones again asked Butler if he had such samples, and Butler said no.

On Oct. 1, 2002, Jones received a fax from USAMRIID. The fax contained a CDC form for the transfer and receipt of select agents. USAMRIID wanted a completed form.

Butler, however, was not authorized by the CDC for such a transfer, Jones said.

Butler told Jones later that month that he had sent the samples to USAMRIID, so Jones completed the necessary paperwork.

Missing plague alarm

Jones learned on Jan. 13 that Butler had a select agent, YP, in his lab when Butler told him that samples were missing.

"I told Dr. Butler that he needed to make sure that the slants were indeed missing and not just misplaced, because it would create a very big problem," Jones said.

Butler told him that the last time he worked with the YP was November 2002.

Jones told Butler he would speak to Robert Sanzotera, Jones' supervisor and director of safety services for the Health Sciences Center. Jones said he also intended to speak to Wesson.

Jones went to see Sanzotera about 3:30 p.m. Jan. 13, Sanzotera said.

"The information provided to me by Mr. Jones came as a surprise since we had no knowledge that Dr. Butler had any select agents in his laboratory," Sanzotera said.

Jones told Sanzotera that there were no signs of forced entry to Butler's lab, a lab to which only Butler had access.

Sanzotera spoke to medical school dean Richard Homan, who agreed that Tech police, as well as the health department, must be notified.

Sanzotera also notes that Butler, in two CDC surveys, denied having select agents such as YP.

Butler told Wesson a specific group of samples was missing. Butler last remembered working with them on Dec. 19, 2002, Wesson said.

Butler said he noticed the samples were gone when he came to his lab Jan. 11, Wesson said.

Butler said "he had not sent any of the plague samples to the CDC or any of his international colleagues," Wesson said.

He was "pretty adamant that the samples had been stolen," Wesson said of Butler. Still, Butler cautioned against contacting police.

Butler told Wesson that "Jones suggested that we not talk to the police because we are still not sure and it will cause a big mess," Wesson said.

Butler encouraged Wesson to perform a departmental investigation.

Wesson told Butler that his inventory and report were sufficient from the lab's standpoint and that they must contact authorities.

Butler again tried to convince Wesson to avoid bringing in the authorities, Wesson said.

Wesson then told Butler to secure the remaining samples while he alerted the university's bioterrorism task force.

Homan said Butler told him Jan. 14 that he originally had 30 culture vials of seven strains of YP, a total of 210 culture vials. Butler told Homan that 30 vials previously had been sent to the CDC in Fort Collins, Colo., for analysis, and that 150 were still in his lab.

Holder said university officials must have been aware at some level that Butler had select agents because of the forms Jones filled out for the USAMRIID transfer.

"It looks to me like Dr. Jones filled out an EA 101 (transfer form from the CDC), talked to the people at Fort Detrick, who had to help him fill out the EA 101. He must've known," Holder said.

Other questions arise

In addition to concerns over Butler's research methods, Campbell said questions have been raised about Butler's income and how he reported his funding and grants to Tech.

"I think the federal government is very interested in how he had $4 million in his bank account," Campbell said.

Lubbock FBI supervisor Miles Burden and Assistant U.S. Attorney Dick Baker both declined to comment.

Campbell said he was shocked to learn the extent of Butler's misinformation to Tech, especially considering Butler's stellar career and prestige both internationally and within TTUHSC.

"If someone's been doing this research 30 years and they have grants and so forth and they're a respected member of the Health Sciences Center community, it would be somewhat akin to a real trusted employee of a company," Campbell said.

"If that employee wants to take advantage of that company with illegal activity, it'll take them (the company) a while to find them because they'll never suspect that a wrong is being perpetrated against them," he said.

Campbell said university policy requires that tenured professors be placed on paid administrative leave before they can be fired.

"The university is going to have to make a decision on how to act," Campbell said. "We're going to have to have all the information to evaluate before we determine how to proceed. I think we're finally getting there."