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Last Updated

30 Nov 2002

Source: Washington Post, January 23, 2002.

FBI Says Central N.J. May Hold Key to Solving Anthrax Mystery

By Dan Eggen and Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writers

FBI investigators believe that the key to finding a culprit in last fall's anthrax attacks may be found in central New Jersey, law enforcement officials said yesterday.

The FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service plan to hold a news conference in Trenton, N.J., today to appeal for help from the public and announce a doubling of the reward in the case to $2.5 million, officials said. All of the four spore-laden letters obtained by authorities were postmarked at a Trenton postal distribution facility.

FBI investigators, stymied by a lack of forensic evidence and slow progress in identifying the source of the deadly spores, hope that a high-profile appeal in New Jersey will shake loose information that could lead to a much-needed break in the case, officials said.

"This is a targeted effort toward central New Jersey," one FBI official said. "Investigators and others associated with the case continue to believe that whoever did this has a relationship with central Jersey, whether they lived there, worked there or just spent a lot of time there. The key to the case could be there."

Two weeks ago, FBI agents visited scientific laboratories and offices at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., for an exhaustive look at photocopy machines in use there. The agency has been looking for tiny marks or imperfections that could match a particular photocopy machine with one of the anthrax letters sent to U.S. Senate offices and news companies. A similar investigation has been conducted at other universities, FBI officials said.

The agency's frustration in finding the culprit was eased only slightly by an announcement of progress in the effort to decipher the genetic makeup of the anthrax strain used in the attacks. Officials at the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville said company scientists have nearly completed a detailed genetic analysis of the bacteria that infected Bob Stevens, the Florida photographer who died in the first confirmed case of anthrax.

The analysis, called genetic sequencing, could eventually help investigators determine the source of the anthrax bacteria through a comparison with other known microbe stocks in government labs and universities. TIGR President Claire Fraser said the results would likely be published within a month, adding that the institute's scientists "had briefed the FBI on the research."

The spores used in the attacks all belonged the the Ames strain of anthrax, a highly virulent strain used by U.S. biowarfare defense labs since the early 1980s. TIGR's analysis already has identified small genetic differences between the Florida anthrax spores and a common Ames "reference strain" used by military researchers at Britain's Porton Down biodefense center, company officials said.

But several scientists familiar with the research said the results, first reported yesterday by the New York Times, do not, by themselves, narrow the field of possible suspects.

"It is an important clue but it does not solve the problem," said Jill Trewhella, the head of the Bioscience Division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, an Energy Department lab that is assisting in the search for genetic clues to the source of the anthrax spores.

Trewhella said tracking anthrax through its genetics is particularly vexing because the organism mutates very slowly. "The error rate for sequencing is greater than the mutation rate for the bacteria," she said.

Law enforcement officials also cautioned that the genetic results are preliminary, and the FBI is awaiting final results before drawing any conclusions. While the genetic differences found by the Rockville scientists are intriguing, they do not rule out any laboratories as potential sources of the anthrax spores used in the fatal mailings, a law enforcement official said.

"The work is not finished, and we don't want to speculate on what the results may be," the official said. "From an investigative standpoint, we'll wait for the results and see what they tell us."

The FBI's $2.5 million reward, increased from $1.25 million, includes $2 million from the federal government and $500,000 from Advo Inc., a major direct-mailer whose business has been damaged by the downturn in postal activity since the anthrax mailings surfaced in early October.

Authorities say they still don't know who sent microbe-tainted letters to Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and several news outlets, and concede that they have no firm suspects in the case. FBI profilers have determined that the culprit is likely a loner with substantial scientific and laboratory skills who has no ties to organized terrorists, but sought to use the Sept. 11 attacks as cover for the mailings.

Agents yesterday also said they are continuing to investigate possible links between the attacks and the Pentagon's biological warfare research program, including the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland. The lab, known as USAMRIID, conducted the first known research with the Ames strain in the early 1980s, and it later shared the strain with other researchers in the United States, Britain and Canada.

Documents from a 1992 Army investigation revealed this week that USAMRIID lost track of more than two dozens biological specimens the previous year, including samples of anthrax bacteria and the deadly Ebola virus. USAMRIID officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the incident, but a former lab commander who worked at USAMRIID at the time said he believes the missing specimens had been sterilized.

The search for the missing microbes was documented in records released by the Army as part of a lawsuit filed by Ayaad Assaad, a scientist who conducted biodefense research at USAMRIID from 1988 to 1997. Assaad himself came to the FBI's attention when an anonymous letter to the agency identified him as a "potential bioterrorist."

The note was postmarked in late September, just before the news of the first anthrax case became public. The Egyptian-born Assaad contends that the letter's author knew of the anthrax attacks and sent the letter to the FBI to divert attention from the true culprit.

A law enforcement official said Assaad was cleared by FBI investigators shortly after the bureau received the anonymous letter. The FBI believes the letter's timing was a coincidence, and the incident is probably not connected to the anthrax mailings, the official said.