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Last Updated

14 Jun 2003

Source: Washington Post, June 14, 2003

FBI Does Some Heavy-Duty Digging in Md.

Drained Pond Searched for Anthrax Clues

By Marilyn W. Thompson, Washington Post Staff Writer

The scene yesterday at a drained pond in Frederick was less reminiscent of the underwater adventures of Jacques Cousteau than it was of plodding Mike Mulligan, the outdated but determined steam shovel.

In a pit of red mud, a bright yellow earthmover chugged up scoop after scoop of rain-drenched dirt, moving it aside for analysis in the second phase of the FBI's search for evidence in the unsolved anthrax case. Along the perimeter, about a dozen men in hard hats and reflective vests worked on various dirty missions. Some gathered around a square container, apparently used as a sifting box. Action was slow but steady, and no one seemed to notice a helicopter full of press gawkers hovering at 400 feet.

After three days spent diverting 1.45 million gallons of water from the one-acre pond -- a process made more taxing by occasional downpours -- yesterday's work was the more important step in the much-discussed anthrax hunt.

The operation is top secret, but law enforcement sources have said that the FBI hopes to find evidence that could have been left behind by the ingenious killer who mailed out a lethal agent in pre-stamped postal envelopes in the fall of 2001.

Five people died and 17 were infected, with more than 10,000 people put at risk of exposure. More broadly, the incident brought the prospect of bioterrorism into the average U.S. household.

The FBI has been unable to solve the baffling "Amerithrax" case, one of its highest priorities, after 18 months of rigorous investigation, using virtually every known modern law enforcement technique. Searches were mounted of homes, outbuildings and rented storage sheds. In military research labs, considered the most likely source of the anthrax bacteria used in the mailings, FBI polygraphs became commonplace. Hundreds were interviewed, and thousands more were asked for leads. Every so often, top FBI officials would head to Capitol Hill to report their progress, offering little hope of an imminent arrest.

Then the isolated pond came to the bureau's attention. A business associate of Steven J. Hatfill -- who has been called a "person of interest" in the case but has not been charged -- told agents about a hypothetical discussion in which Hatfill explained how he might dispose of contaminated material.

FBI agents descended on the Frederick Municipal Forest, a few miles from where Hatfill once lived while working as an Army pathogens researcher. Expert divers were called in to cut through the winter ice and comb the murky waters of about a dozen spring-fed ponds, created years ago to fight forest fires.

Weather prevented a complete search. But the FBI's early discoveries included a mysterious box, something akin to a makeshift scientific glove box, in which laboratory researchers wearing triple layers of latex gloves can safely manipulate deadly pathogens.

A novel theory evolved: Could the killer have waded into water with the contraption and used it to stuff anthrax into envelopes? Could the depths of the pond explain why searches on land had turned up no evidence of contamination? Had the bureau finally solved a nearly perfect crime?

On the edge of the pond yesterday stood an assortment of tarps, tents and trailers, the most prominent emblazoned "FBI" in bold letters.

It appeared that Hollywood's crime-fighting "Men in Black" had become rather grungy "Men in Hip Boots."

Before the search began, FBI agent Bob Roth, a veteran murder investigator, spent weeks communicating with bureaucrats at the Maryland Department of the Environment. There were issues to be sorted out. The state wanted assurances that water would be pumped gradually and properly diverted to avoid flooding. Endangered species would have to be protected, including several spectacular varieties of rare orchid. The state wanted an inspector on-site daily to ensure compliance with regulations.

Although the operation held the potential of great law enforcement breakthroughs, a self-respecting cop might simply have tried to decline this assignment. There were reports of agents being rescued after sinking knee-deep in the voracious goop.

The FBI has informed state and city officials that it may take three to four weeks to finish its work inside the yellow police tape, strung across roads cutting through the woods.

Mountain hikers and orchid lovers will have to be redirected for a while.

When the work is through, the bureau's private contractor will pipe water back into the pond, filling it to its normal level of three to four feet.

The FBI will silently pack up its equipment and troop back to headquarters, revealing nothing of what agents found after days of clawing and sifting through the pond's rich, red bottom.