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Last Updated

11 Nov 2002

Source: Washington Post, November 28, 2001.

New FBI Team Tackles Anthrax

Two Women's 'Mystery' Cases of Infection to Be Reviewed

By Jim McGee and Susan Schmidt Washington Post Staff Writers

Frustrated by a daunting lack of leads, the FBI plans to have a fresh team of agents review the forensic and investigative work on the two most mysterious anthrax infection cases.

Known as a "red team," the new agents will search to see if any clues were missed in the deaths of Ottilie Lundgren, 94, a widow who lived in Oxford, Conn., and Kathy T. Nguyen, 61, a hospital worker in New York City, according a Justice Department official.

The FBI review, which involves examining forensic protocols and evidence-processing at the crime scenes, reflects the FBI's frustration with the cold trails left by the two cases.

Part of that frustration, the official said, stems from the curious circumstances of the two cases and how they differ from the known anthrax mailings to congressional offices and news media, which resulted in three other deaths.

"We are really baffled by the anthrax," the official said.

So far, no evidence has surfaced indicating that Lundgren or Nguyen received any suspect mail. Lundgren lived alone and rarely ventured from her home. Tests in and around her home and neighborhood have come up negative for the presence of anthrax. Nguyen rode a subway each day to her hospital job. As in Lundgren's case, investigators have been unable to locate the source of her infection.

After weeks of scouring the neighborhoods and homes of the two women and retracing their movements, the FBI is now considering "whether our forensics is good enough," the official said.

An FBI spokeswoman Tuesday said she could not verify the existence of a special team but added that the FBI "regularly reviews major cases" to see if a thorough investigation has been done.

While the FBI publicly says it is looking into all possible avenues of infection in Lundgren's case -- including deliberate or accidental exposure by a bioterrorist -- the investigation appears to be focusing on the people around Lundgren and their recollections of her movements in her last weeks.

So far, the FBI has not questioned the pharmacists near Lundgren to see if anybody had purchased Cipro -- a precautionary step a terrorist might have taken. By contrast, when the FBI believed it was on the trail of a bioterrorist who had sent contaminated letters from Trenton, N.J., to New York and Washington, agents interviewed pharmacists throughout the Trenton area.

Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland (R) said at a news conference last night that an 84-year-old man from Seymour, Conn., who died several weeks ago did not succumb to anthrax. Because of the man's proximity to Lundgren, tissue samples had been sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The FBI is also consulting with outside scientists to produce a list of labs known to have grown the Ames strain of anthrax, which investigators have identified in the five anthrax deaths so far. The FBI is assembling lists of current and former lab employees, seeking people who had access to the anthrax spores and the sophisticated knowledge required to mill them down to a fine, easily inhalable powder.

Officials now believe no more than a few hundred people in this country, at most, would fit that description, the sources said. The FBI is also compiling information on the equipment needed in the milling process, such as centrifuges and fermenters.

Meanwhile, forensic scientists with the FBI and the U.S. Army continue to move cautiously in their examination of an unopened letter containing anthrax that was addressed to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). Officials said the Leahy letter represents the least-tainted piece of evidence that has surfaced.

Three other letters found to contain anthrax had been opened before investigators got them, and scientists were hampered by the relatively small number of spores that they had to work with.

With the Leahy letter, the FBI and Army analysts have spent days practicing a procedure for opening envelopes to preserve as many spores as possible. Officials said the letter will likely be opened on Thursday.

"We don't want to lose a single spore," one FBI official said. "We want to maximize the product and maximize the quality of the analysis."

Officials are also deeply concerned about the risk posed by the highly aerosolized spores in the Leahy letter, which is being kept under seal at a U.S. Army biological laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md.

On Capitol Hill, officials announced that mail delivery would resume today in the House and in the Senate this week for the first time since the anthrax crisis began. An irradiation process will delay it about a week.

The mail has been suspended and 50 senators' offices shut since aides to Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) opened a letter containing anthrax spores on Oct. 15.

An Environmental Protection Agency spokesman said a sealed section of the Hart Senate Office Building -- where Daschle's office is located -- could reopen in two to four weeks.

Separately, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the police, said yesterday that 65 out of about 600 bags of quarantined congressional mail in Virginia found to be cross-contaminated with anthrax spores should be destroyed. A Ney spokesman said the congressman believes the mail should be destroyed because of the "potency" of the Leahy letter.

Officials also said environmental crews will begin disinfecting the Hart Building with chlorine dioxide gas this weekend.

Richard Rupert, on-site coordinator for the EPA, said final approval has been given for a decontamination process to spot-clean 11 senators' suites and fumigate Daschle's personal office.

Chlorine dioxide will be pumped in at a concentration of 500 parts per million to 750 parts per million for up to 18 hours, Rupert said. The gas will kill "99.999 percent" of anthrax spores, he said.

No impact is expected outside the building, but officials will hold a community meeting for Capitol Hill residents at 6:30 p.m. today at St. Joseph's Catholic Church at Second and C streets NE. Residents east of the Capitol in an area bounded by G Street NE, Fourth Street NE and East Capitol Street are invited to the meeting.

Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu, Dale Russakoff and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.