about Epidemiology & the department

Epidemiology academic information

Epidemiology faculty

Epidemilogy resources

sites of interest to Epidemiology professionals

Last Updated

05 Dec 2002

Source: Newsweek, August 12, 2002 (posted August 5).

The Hunt for the Anthrax Killer

The FBI still doesn’t have enough evidence to arrest anyone, but agents do have intriguing new clues. An exclusive look at the search for the perpetrator of America’s worst bioterror attack

By Mark Miller and Daniel Klaidman, NEWSWEEK

Aug. 12 issue -- The dogs, purebred bloodhounds with noses a thousand times more sensitive than a human’s, were barking and howling and straining at their leashes. Early last week FBI agents on the trail of last year’s anthrax attacker turned to a 16th-century technology to help solve a 21st-century crime.

AGENTS PRESENTED the canines with scent packs lifted from anthrax-tainted letters mailed to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy (long since decontaminated), hoping some faint, telltale trace of the perpetrator’s smell still remained months after the fact. The agents quietly brought the dogs to various locations frequented by a dozen people they considered possible suspects -- hoping the hounds would match the scent on the letters. In place after place, the dogs had no reaction. But when the handlers approached the Frederick, Md., apartment building of Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, an eccentric 48-year-old scientist who had worked in one of the Army’s top bioweapons-research laboratories, the dogs immediately became agitated, NEWSWEEK has learned. "They went crazy," says one law-enforcement source. The agents also brought the bloodhounds to the Washington, D.C., apartment of Hatfill’s girlfriend and to a Denny’s restaurant in Louisiana, where Hatfill had eaten the day before. In both places, the dogs jumped and barked, indicating they’d picked up the scent. (Bloodhounds are the only dogs whose powers of smell are admissible in court.)

After months of frustration, the Feds believed they were finally on the verge of a breakthrough. Flamboyant and arrogant, with a penchant for exaggerating his achievements, Hatfill intrigued them. For years, he had loudly complained the United States wasn’t doing enough to prepare for a potential bioterror attack, and feared that his warnings weren’t being heeded. Then, the government suspended his security clearance after he failed questions on a polygraph exam he took while applying for a job at the CIA. The loss of his clearance put his job at a defense contractor at peril. The fact that the first anthrax letters went out a month later ultimately made investigators wonder: had the experience left him bitter enough to do something drastic?


Something else about Hatfill caught their eye. Agents surveilling his apartment watched him as he pitched loads of his belongings into a dumpster behind his apartment building -- getting rid of evidence, some agents wondered. Though the FBI says Hatfill has been cooperative all along, the dogs and the dumpster led agents to obtain a criminal-search warrant for Hatfill’s apartment -- to turn up the heat. Agents arrived Thursday morning, with the bloodhounds in tow. When they entered the apartment, one of the dogs excitedly bounded right up to Hatfill. "When you see how the dogs go to everything that connected him, you say ‘Damn!’ " says a law-enforcement official.

Yet despite the hounds’ enthusiasm, when the Feds left the apartment hours later, they found nothing linking Hatfill to the crime (lab tests of their findings are ongoing). Agents who went into the dumpster found only a heap of Hatfill’s personal belongings. Hatfill, who knew he was being watched by the FBI and had complained to friends about it, had a perfectly good explanation: of course he was throwing things into the dumpster. He had recently accepted a job at Louisiana State University, and was cleaning out his apartment before the move. (Last week LSU placed Hatfill on a 30-day paid leave of absence.)

Initial excitement, followed by dashed hopes, has typified the government’s maddening, months-long search for the person responsible for the worst bioterror attack on American soil. The six letters, mailed last fall to Leahy, Daschle, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, the New York Post and the Florida offices of the National Enquirer, wound up infecting 18 people and killing five. The crime was especially terrifying because the anthrax -- a sophisticated, "aerosolized" powder -- escaped from the envelopes, spread through parts of the nation’s mail system and contaminated an entire Senate office building. Nearly a year later, the main mail-handling center in Washington, D.C., has yet to be reopened.

The FBI is under tremendous pressure to close the case—unlike the September 11 hijackers, the anthrax killer is presumably still alive, and at large. The two targeted senators demand regular progress reports from the bureau, and are becoming increasingly impatient.


Plagued by false starts and dead ends, the investigators have turned their attention time and again to Hatfill. But officials say they aren’t close to making any arrests in the case. "We’re still a long way from any proof that we could take into court," says one senior official. Through his lawyers, Hatfill has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and officials say that he has been very helpful and cooperative. "Dr. Hatfill ... was voluntarily debriefed and polygraphed, and voluntarily agreed to have his home, car and other property subjected to a lengthy and comprehensive search by the FBI," said Victor Glasberg, Hatfill’s lawyer, in a statement last week. "He ... was told that the results were all favorable and that he was not a suspect in the case." (Glasberg declined to answer questions.) Thursday’s search wasn’t the first time agents appeared at Hatfill’s doorstep. In the months before, he had voluntarily allowed agents to search his apartment on two other occasions.

Officials have been particularly careful to point out that Hatfill is one of "around 12" people they are looking at. They say he is not a suspect, or even a target of the investigation. The bureau is still haunted by its botched investigation of Richard Jewell, the falsely suspected Olympic bomber who was all but convicted in the press by anonymous leaks from government agents, who were sure he was guilty. Jewell was eventually cleared of all suspicion and successfully sued for damages. The deeply embarrassing episode left a permanent chill on the bureau. "Richard Jewell looms large around here," says an FBI official. "We’ve got to be very careful."

In the frantic weeks after the attacks, federal agents tried to piece together a profile of the type of person who would have -- and could have -- carried out the crime. There were many possibilities. A foreign terrorist? A disgruntled scientist? Several times, they excitedly pursued promising leads that came up short. Last November, agents stormed the home of Aziz Kazi, a Pakistani-born budget official for the city of Chester, Pa. They hauled away dozens of boxes of his belongings and questioned him for hours about a mysterious liquid he had been seen carrying out of the house. It turned out the family dishwasher had backed up, and Kazi was bailing out his kitchen. In another lead, agents in Texas began watching an Egyptian man who had been fingered by a jailhouse snitch. Agents overheard his associates talking about delivering the contents of a "brown envelope," and watched as he went to the airport. When they covertly searched his luggage, they found the envelope. Inside: insurance papers.


Before long, agents concluded that the sophisticated attacks were more likely carried out by someone who had access to a well-equipped lab. That meant a scientist -- quite possibly one who worked for the government. The anthrax was finely produced to spread quickly through the air, not the sort of thing an amateur could create. FBI profilers believed the evidence pointed to a person who wanted to send a message, and possibly show off his talents, not necessarily to kill. Some of the letters warned the reader to start taking penicillin, and the anthrax itself was not an advanced, drug-resistant strain, but one that was easily treatable with common antibiotics.

When agents began asking around the scientific community, one name kept popping up: Steven Hatfill. In the small, insular world of germ scientists, Hatfill’s outsized personality stood out. He regaled colleagues with tales of his exploits as a cold warrior in the ’70s, fighting with the elite SAS troops and notorious Selous Scouts of the white Rhodesian Army against black rebels. He claimed a brilliant career in the U.S. military, bragging to a friend that he flew fighter planes and helicopters. On his resume, he lists impressive credentials, including degrees in medicine from a Rhodesian university and a Ph.D. in microbiology from Rhodes University in South Africa.

Friends and colleagues uniformly use words like "brilliant" and "charming" to describe him. "Once when we were chatting I grabbed a thick medical reference book from the library and said to him, ‘Hey Steve, can I test you?’ " recalled one former colleague. "It didn’t matter what I asked him: he repeated the answer as if reading the book to me." But he was also called "strange" and "short-tempered." At a hospital in South Africa, colleagues recalled that he wore a 9mm sidearm, even when making his rounds. He drove fast and piled up traffic tickets, and had a reputation for running through girlfriends. One colleague dubbed him the "Warren Beatty of science." He also had a habit of making wild claims. One former colleague says Hatfill told him he was a fighter pilot in Vietnam and had been shot down over the China Sea.


In fact, many of Hatfill’s heroics appear to have been exaggerated. A copy of his military records, obtained by NEWSWEEK, shows that Hatfill joined the Marines in 1971, but was discharged a year later. He did a three-year stint in the Army, stationed in the United States, but did not rise above the rank of private -- and was never trained as a pilot. Military records in Zimbabwe -- and NEWSWEEK interviews -- show Hatfill did serve in the military in Rhodesia. But U.S. records show that he was in America for at least two of the years he claimed to have been fighting in Rhodesia. More seriously, Hatfill’s Ph.D. also appears to be an invention. Rhodes University officials tell NEWSWEEK that he was indeed enrolled there at one point, but never received a degree. And he claimed to be a member of the prestigious Royal Society of Medicine; officials there say they have no record of his belonging.

Hatfill’s medical degree was for real, and friends and teachers described him as a gifted scientist. In 1995, Hatfill received a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health for biomedical research. Two years later he won a job at the government’s premier biolab, the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, located in Frederick, Md., an hour outside Washington, D.C. The lab does hands-on research with deadly biological agents, including Ebola and anthrax. Hatfill worked on Ebola and Marburg research, and was not assigned to work with anthrax, according to a base spokesman.

Hatfill became focused on the dangers of a potential bioweapons attack in the United States -- and believed the country wasn’t doing enough to prepare. He felt so strongly that he took his case to the public. Appearing on a cable-TV news show, he warned that anthrax could be sent through the mail. "He was so sure that this was going to happen," recalls the show’s host, Armstrong Williams. "He was emphatic." Hatfill posed for a magazine photo spread that depicted him making a batch of anthrax in his kitchen. In 1999, he left USAMRIID for a job at Scientific Applications International Corp., a huge defense contractor where he did work detailing the risks of biological and chemical attacks. As part of his job, he gave periodic presentations to employees of U.S. military, intelligence and other government agencies.

Last summer Hatfill’s work was abruptly halted when he applied for a job with the CIA, a post that required a high-level security clearance. But when Hatfill failed the polygraph exam, the CIA rejected him for the job and the Pentagon suspended his existing security clearance. As a result, he lost his position at SAIC.

When the Feds first began looking at Hatfill soon after the attacks, he was open and friendly, invited agents to search his home and car, and allowed them to spend hours combing through a storage locker he kept near his parents’ house in Florida. He even waived his physician-patient privilege so investigators could ask his doctor about Hatfill’s prescriptions for Cipro. (He explained Hatfill had an infection.) The searches came up empty. There was one intriguing, but inconclusive, find. On Hatfill’s computer hard drive, agents discovered the draft of a novel. The thriller’s plot centered on a bioterror attack, and how the perpetrator covered his tracks. But the fictional musings of a scientist were hardly evidence, and the investigation stalled.

One of the major questions the Feds have yet to answer: how did the perpetrator pull it off? "It’s the big gap," says one federal agent. Getting hold of the anthrax wouldn’t necessarily have been hard for a government scientist. At least one U.S. government lab has covertly manufactured a small amount of weapons-grade anthrax since the early ’90s. And law-enforcement sources say the labs are notoriously lax at keeping track of their inventory, and their overall security is poor. "Someone could just put a Baggie in his coat and walk out of a lab with the stuff," says one law-enforcement official.

Yet even a highly trained scientist would have had a difficult time preparing and sending the anthrax without getting it all over himself and his surroundings. Anthrax researchers describe how the finely milled powder simply floats off glass slides before they can get it under the microscope. Getting the stuff into an envelope -- and not everywhere else -- would have required enormous skill. One possibility: the perpetrator had access to a commercial or government lab equipped with a "clean room." Another: a sophisticated home lab.

Until investigators can find physical evidence tying someone to the crime, they’ll be forced to speculate about the perpetrator’s motives and methods. They are still casting an enormous net. Law-enforcement sources say they have issued hundreds of subpoenas nationwide, and they are sifting through thousands of documents in search of new leads. The clues may be too small to see -- sweat or a scent on an envelope -- but that may be all they need to bring out the hounds.

With Tom Masland, Mark Hosenball, Howard Fineman, Michael Isikoff, John Barry, Eleanor Clift and Mike Cadman. Research by Ruth Tenenbaum.