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24 Aug 2008

Source: Star Ledger (New Jersey), August 7, 2008.

FBI concludes Ivins carried out anthrax attacks alone

by J. Scott Orr/The Star-Ledger

WASHINGTON -- The FBI's seven-year investigation into the deadly mail-borne anthrax attacks that killed five and terrorized post 9/11 America concluded that a deeply troubled Army scientist carried out the plot alone.

The weapon, and the key to solving the mystery, was a single flask of the dangerous biological agent.

Jeffrey Taylor, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said at a Wednesday news conference that Bruce Ivins -- the Army microbiologist who killed himself last week -- was the killer who sent letters laced with lethal anthrax spores from a mailbox in Princeton to Capitol Hill and the media.

"Based upon the totality of the evidence we had gathered against him, we are confident that Doctor Ivins was the only person responsible for these attacks," Taylor said, expressing confidence that the case against Ivins was sound and would have resulted in a conviction if it were brought to trial.

"Doctor Bruce Edward Ivins was responsible for the death, sickness and fear brought to our country by the 2001 anthrax mailings," said Joseph Persichini, head of the FBI's office for the District of Columbia.

The breakthrough in the case, Taylor said, was the development by the FBI in 2005 of new science that was able to trace the anthrax contained in the letters to a single vessel of the biological agent -- flask RMR1029 -- that was created and controlled by Ivins at the Army research facility at Fort Detrick, Md.

That flask, Taylor said, "was effectively the murder weapon."

Among other evidence: Ivins could not explain long hours alone in the lab in the days before the attacks, he provided false anthrax specimens to the FBI, he suffered mental health problems, he frequently traveled distances to anonymously mail parcels, he was a prolific writer to Congress and the media, and the anthrax envelopes were purchased from a post office where Ivins had a post office box.

Ivins took a lethal overdose of Tylenol and died July 29. That day, Ivins and his attorney, Paul Kemp, were to meet with prosecutors who planned to outline the case against the scientist.

Ivins' attorneys issued a statement late Wednesday strongly disputing the government's conclusions, charging that federal officials presented only "the illusion of guilt" and asserting that their client was innocent of the anthrax attacks.

Taylor laid out the case to reporters Wednesday afternoon, hours after the FBI released a mountain of documents that highlighted the clues investigators followed in fingering Ivins.

According to one document, just before the attacks were launched, Ivins sent an e-mail warning that "Bin Laden terrorists for sure have anthrax and sarin gas" and have "just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans."

The affidavit in support of search warrants for Ivins' home, vehicles and other locations said this warning was suspiciously similar to the words of the anthrax killer who wrote "we have this anthrax...death to America...death to Israel."

The documents said that at the time of the attacks, Ivins was "the custodian of a large flask of highly purified anthrax spores" kept at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, at Fort Detrick.

Investigators suggested a possible motive may have been Ivins' concern about the future of research on a potential anthrax vaccine he had helped create.

The documents also showed "an unusual spike in after hours visits to the lab in September 2001. From usually less than five hours a month to more than 30 that month. In particular, he spent more than two hours each night there in the weekend before the letters were mailed."

Asked about his odd work schedule in 2005, Ivins told investigators "home was not good" and that he went to the lab to "escape."

The documents say that during the investigation, Ivins "repeatedly claimed that the anthrax used in the attacks resembled that of another researcher at (Fort Detrick) and were dissimilar to the Bacillus anthracis Ames organisms maintained in his laboratory."

The papers also revealed that Ivins was suffering from severe mental health issues at the time of the attacks, telling a coworker he had "incredible paranoid delusional thoughts at times" and that he might be unable to control his behavior.

As investigators built the case against him, Ivins was feeling the heat. In the months prior to his death, Ivins told co-workers and friends he was a suspect in the case, according to one affidavit. He even told one friend that his attorney had advised him to be prepared to be indicted.

According to the documents, as recently as a month ago Ivins said he was angered by the government's investigation and "was not going to face the death penalty, but instead had a plan to kill co-workers and other individuals who had wronged him."

During a July 9 group therapy session in his home town of Frederick, Md., the documents said, Ivins "said he had a bullet-proof vest, and a list of co-workers, and added that he was going to obtain a Glock firearm from his son within the next day, because federal agents are watching him and he could not obtain a weapon on his own."

In a bizarre twist to the anthrax plot, the documents confirmed Ivins' obsession with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, which has an office at 20 Nassau St. in Princeton, some 60 feet from the box where the letters were mailed.

Investigators initially focused on another Fort Detrick scientist, Steven Hatfill, as a "person of interest" in the attacks, but Hatfill was never charged. He sued the Justice Department, which settled with him in June for a reported $6 million.

It was on Sept. 18, 2001, one week after the 9/11 attacks, that the first anthrax letters were processed at the post office location in Hamilton. They were addressed to the New York Post and NBC in New York.

Two postal workers at the Hamilton postal center -- Richard Morgano (case 3) and Teresa Heller (case 4) -- contracted the easily treated cutaneous, or skin, form of anthrax. Five other people were infected by anthrax in New Jersey -- two of them with the deadly inhalation form. All of them survived.

Morgano was among some 20 victims and survivors of the dead who were briefed by the FBI Wednesday, though he was not available for comment.

By the time the letters finished circulating, five people had died from the inhalation form of anthrax: two in Washington, D.C., and one each in Florida, New York and Connecticut.

The attacks also forced the closure and decontamination of offices on Capitol Hill and postal facilities in Washington and Hamilton.

According to one affidavit, powder from anthrax-laden letters sent to the New York Post and Tom Brokaw of NBC contained a bacterial contaminant not found in other anthrax-containing envelopes mailed to Sens. Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle. Investigators concluded that "the contaminant must have been introduced during the production of the Post and Brokaw spores."

The documents disclosed that authorities searched Ivins' home on Nov. 2, 2007, taking 22 swabs of vacuum filters and radiators and seizing dozens of items. Among them were video cassettes, family photos, information about guns and a copy of "The Plague" by Albert Camus. Ivins' cars and his safe deposit box also were searched.

Star-Ledger writers John P. Martin, Jeff Whelan and Rick Hepp contributed to this report.