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Last Updated

25 Aug 2008

Source: Washington Post, August 7, 2008.

Briefing the Victims

Some Find Relief, but Skepticism Remains

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Hamil R. Harris, Washington Post Staff Writers

For years, Ernesto Blanco (case 7) has been haunted by questions about who carried out the 2001 anthrax attacks, which left him hospitalized for 27 days. Yesterday, the Florida resident felt he finally got some answers.

Blanco and about 20 other anthrax victims or relatives of victims were briefed at FBI headquarters about the evidence against Bruce E. Ivins, the scientist who killed himself last week as a grand jury was considering an indictment. The families received the information shortly before a news conference presenting the FBI's case.

Blanco said the lengthy, sometimes tearful session with the FBI provided a sense of relief.

"For me, everything is clear," said Blanco, an 80-year-old mailroom worker who is still employed by American Media Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla., where he is thought to have contracted the disease. "It's very emotional."

Not everyone was willing to accept the government's conclusions about the anthrax-laced letters, which killed five people, sickened at least 17 more and panicked residents in the targeted cities, including Washington.

Dena Briscoe, president of the American Postal Workers Union local for Washington and Southern Maryland, slipped into the news conference at the Justice Department to ask when postal employees would be informed about the investigation. "There are still too many unanswered questions. I still can't say that one person did all of this," Briscoe told a reporter just before an official asked her to leave the room.

Alexander Lazaroff, a top official at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said briefings for workers would be held later in facilities affected by the anthrax attacks. That presumably would include the Brentwood office in Northeast Washington, where two workers, Thomas L. Morris Jr. (case 15) and Joseph P. Curseen Jr. (case 16), were killed by the bacteria in 2001. Their wives attended the FBI briefing.

Briscoe said a meeting should be held promptly. "I do respect what they did with the families, but we should have the same opportunity, because any of us could have died in that building," she said.

Ivins's attorney, Paul F. Kemp, reiterated yesterday that his client was innocent.

The victims and their relatives met for more than three hours yesterday morning with FBI officials, including Director Robert S. Mueller III. Those attending were whisked in and out of FBI headquarters in vans with tinted windows, past a crowd of journalists.

Leroy Richmond, 64 (case 14), who nearly died after contracting anthrax at Brentwood, was asked later about the briefing. "I'm okay with it," he said, holding aloft a ream of documents. He referred questions to his attorney, Gregory Lattimer, who said the Stafford resident is still considering a lawsuit.

"A plausible case could be made in terms of Mr. Ivins's guilt, but on the other hand, a case could be made that none of this constitutes a smoking gun," Lattimer said.

Maureen Stevens, the wife of Robert Stevens (case 5), a Florida photo editor killed in the attacks, told her attorney, Richard Schuler, that the new information was convincing.

"She indicated to me that the totality of the evidence that was presented appeared to be fairly persuasive," Schuler said.

However, that did not allay the Stevens family's concerns, he said. The family is seeking $50 million in a lawsuit against the U.S. government, which it holds responsible for Robert Stevens's death. Schuler said he is considering adding to the lawsuit the allegation that the government was negligent in employing Ivins at the Army's infectious-disease facility at Fort Detrick.

"If he was psychologically unstable, he shouldn't be in an area where he's controlling some of the most dangerous substances on earth, that's for sure," Schuler said.

Not all the victims or relatives made it to the briefing, which was hastily arranged after news about Ivins broke late last week. One survivor said he stayed away because he does not trust the government.

"It's mainly a public relations thing for the FBI," said David Hose, 65 (case 20), of Winchester, Va.

Hose worked at a State Department mail facility when he contracted inhalation anthrax in 2001. He has filed a $12 million lawsuit against the government and said he continues to have serious medical problems.