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Last Updated

15 Jun 2003

Source: Washington Post, June 15, 2003

Anthrax Probe Poses Only Passing Worry

Amid FBI Investigation, Frederick Mostly Reassured by Its Own History

By Elizabeth Williamson and David Snyder, Washington Post Staff Writers

To Elizabeth Heath, it seems as if getting away from it all in Frederick these days means sharing space with criminals.

Last fall, police caught the Washington area sniper suspects at a rest stop off Interstate 70. Now, just a few miles away, the FBI is draining a pond in a municipal forest for evidence in the 2001 anthrax attacks.

"All my friends in Carroll County were calling on the phone, like, 'Man, all the stuff is happening at your house,' " said Heath, 37, whose green clapboard house is a short walk from the FBI operation.

Agents are seeking clues to the attacker who killed five people in the fall of 2001 by mailing envelopes containing the anthrax bacteria.

"I'm not sure I like it," Heath said. Referring to her family, which includes her husband and their two children, she said: "We try to keep to ourselves up here. That's why we moved up here."

As the FBI search of the Frederick Municipal Forest pond got underway this week, city officials sought to reassure residents that the chances of any anthrax bacteria entering the water supply were small. Some people who live near the FBI's pond of interest, such as Heath, have had passing worries. But others are more concerned about the probe's impact on the fishing.

The fact is, Frederick has had anthrax bacteria in its back yard for decades.

The biggest employer in the city of 52,000 is the Army's Fort Detrick, the former biological weapons research center that once brewed anthrax bacteria by the gallon. There's hardly a Rotary Club meeting or bingo game that isn't attended by at least one retiree who worked on germ warfare projects.

Some say Detrick's Cold War legacy makes Frederick a perfect place for an investigation as secretive as the anthrax probe. Detrick employees maintain high-level security clearances. Even longtime retirees don't discuss their former jobs.

"You didn't inquire into what was not your business," Hubert Kaempf, 83, who supervised maintenance crews at Detrick for 50 years, said recently. "We did a tremendous job."

A key reason that the anthrax probe has come to Frederick is that Steven Hatfill, a physician and researcher described by authorities as a "person of interest" in the case, once worked at Fort Detrick. Investigators were in the forest last winter, when they found a device that some experts believe may have been used to prepare the envelopes. Now authorities are seeking equipment and clothing that could have been used to work with the anthrax bacteria, which was so highly aerosolized that it could have harmed, or killed, anyone who came in contact with it.

"The threat's sort of worn off" in Frederick, said Paul Gordon, a former mayor who remains active in the community and writes a column for the weekly Frederick Gazette. In recent weeks, Frederick city spokeswoman Nancy Poss has answered dozens of calls about the probe from the news media, but only one from a citizen -- a disgruntled angler.

None of which means the city takes the pond operations lightly. In a news conference Monday, Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty said, "We just want to assure our public that . . . we don't foresee any dramatic impacts on our lives" resulting from the pond operation, which could last a month. She and Police Chief Kim C. Dine said that repeated FBI tests indicated there was no threat to the water supply.

The Frederick Municipal Forest is a 7,000-acre swath of woods, as close as one can get to wilderness in the Washington area. Development is not allowed in the pond-studded expanse known locally as "the watershed." Rare orchids flourish and ponds teem with trout. The pond being drained by the FBI is about eight miles from Fort Detrick.

Heath lives on the western edge of the dense forest, having moved there seven years ago from Carroll County. The nearest house is about 300 yards away. Visitors to the forest are nearly nonexistent in winter. In the summer, cyclists and hikers venture in, drawn by what attracts Heath -- the remoteness. The forest is only eight miles from downtown Frederick.

"Really, we're so close to Frederick city, but it just doesn't feel like it," Heath said. "Maybe that's what the anthrax guy was thinking."

The seclusion that the forest provides has appealed to less savory types. In generations past, moonshiners plied their trade there, and criminal investigations often bring police through. Last summer, a man walking his dog in the woods found the body of Rodney Cocking, 59, a psychologist and program director for the National Science Foundation. Randall H. Gerlach, 56, a contractor who had worked on Cocking's Carroll County home, was convicted of the slaying this year. In 1982, a couple searching for mushrooms found a footlocker with the decomposed body of an unidentified woman inside. The case remains unsolved.

Perhaps the woods' reputation makes residents more sanguine about the FBI's presence there. "I had nine people call me from outside Frederick," said Alderman Dave Lenhart (R). "Not a single call from a Frederick resident. . . . I theorize that [city residents] don't recognize this as a city issue. It's a federal investigation."

Federal agents are no strangers here, either, especially because of the sniper and anthrax investigations. And many here are proud of Fort Detrick's role in the latter investigation: Detrick scientists tested the bacteria-laced letters soon after the letters were found.

Officials say the fort hasn't done bioweapons work since 1969, when President Richard M. Nixon decommissioned it -- something some old-timers refer to as "shutting us down." Now, Detrick is a medical research center, housing the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.