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Last Updated

20 May 2003

Source:  Baltimore Sun, May 20, 2003

FBI vehicle hits Hatfill, but he gets the $5 ticket

Scientist being watched in anthrax investigation

By Scott Shane, Sun Staff

FBI anthrax investigators' relentless surveillance of a former Army bioterrorism expert took a bizarre turn Saturday when a vehicle driven by an agent hit Dr. Steven J. Hatfill on a busy Georgetown street -- and Hatfill wound up with a $5 ticket.

The driver of the FBI sport utility vehicle, Bryan Blankenship, told police he "drove off, striking" Hatfill, but was not charged, according to a police report. Hatfill was cited for "walking to create a hazard."

The FBI vehicle, a Dodge Durango, ran over Hatfill's right foot and knocked him to the pavement on Wisconsin Avenue about 4:30 p.m. Saturday, said Hatfill's spokesman, Pat Clawson. Clawson said Hatfill had "a goose egg several inches long" on his foot and abrasions on his forehead and was attended to by paramedics at the scene.

Hatfill, who is trained as a medical doctor, refused a ride to the hospital, Clawson said, be cause he is out of money, has no health insurance and believed no bones were broken.

"He was dazed and out of it for a few minutes, and he's pretty banged and bruised," Clawson said. "He's absolutely enraged. There was nothing about this that constituted legitimate surveillance."

Hatfill can pay the $5 ticket or contest it in court, said Officer Kenneth Bryson, a spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Police.

The incident occurred after Hatfill and his girlfriend left their Northwest Washington apartment to buy paint at a Wisconsin Avenue store. As the woman parked the car, Hatfill leapt out and approached a Dodge sport utility vehicle that had been following him dangerously closely, Clawson said.

When Hatfill protested to the FBI agent behind the wheel and tried to snap his picture, the agent pointed a video camera at the scientist and simultaneously hit the accelerator, knocking Hatfill down, Clawson said. That description accorded with statements attributed to both Hatfill and Blankenship in the police report.

FBI spokeswoman Debra J. Weierman[CQ] declined to comment.

Asked why only Hatfill was charged if Blankenship drove into him, Bryson said: "Based on the facts and circumstances at the scene, the officers concluded that the pedestrian was at fault."

The encounter was embarrassing enough to provoke a rare public statement from the FBI's Washington field office, which oversees the anthrax investigation.

"We are aware of an incident between Mr. Steven Hatfill and an FBI employee," said Michael E. Rolince, the acting assistant FBI director in charge of the Washington office. "During the incident, Mr. Hatfill fell to the ground on Wisconsin Avenue."

The statement said Hatfill "refused medical treatment," an assertion that Clawson disputed.

For months, FBI surveillance teams have staked out apartments where Hatfill is staying, trailed his car with as many as eight vehicles and followed him into shops and restaurants, according to Hatfill's friends and lawyers.

But Hatfill, who has vehemently protested his innocence, has not been charged and no evidence connecting him to the anthrax attacks has ever been made public.

Mike Hayes, who spent 20 years as an FBI agent specializing in surveillance, said aggressive, obvious tailing is unusual in a criminal investigation, where agents usually try to avoid being spotted.

Only when FBI surveillance teams trail foreign spies are they sometimes directed to "bumperlock" their targets, following closely to prevent them from meeting contacts or visiting dead drops, he said.

The surveillance might be intended to prevent Hatfill from disappearing or taking some other action, said Hayes, president of Technical Threat Analysis Group in California. "What you're describing -- really obvious surveillance -- doesn't make a lot of sense," he said.

Hatfill's attorney, Thomas G. Connolly, declined to say whether his client will file a for mal complaint with the FBI. In the past, his attorneys have protested to the Justice Department about what they called pointless harassment of an innocent man.

The odd encounter was the latest twist in the investigation of the anthrax-laced letters mailed to U.S. senators and news organizations in 2001, killing five people and sickening at least 17.

Under heavy pressure from the White House and Congress to find the culprit, the bureau deployed hundreds of agents across the country. By last summer, however, they appeared to focus their most-intensive ef forts on Hatfill.

Having trained as a physician in Zimbabwe and South Africa, Hatfill returned to the United States in the mid-1990s and forged a new career as an expert in the emerging field of bioterrorism.

Hatfill worked at the National Institutes of Health and later spent two years at the Army's biodefense research center at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, where he did research on the Ebola virus in a building where other scientists were studying the Ames strain of anthrax used in the attacks.

After coming under scrutiny in the anthrax probe, Hatfill was fired from two $150,000-a-year jobs, first with a defense contractor and then with Louisiana State University. By then, reporters had dug up numerous misstatements on Hatfill's resume, including false claims that he had served in an Army Special Forces unit and earned a doctorate from a South African university.

In two televised news conferences last summer, Hatfill denied involvement in the anthrax mailings and accused the FBI and Justice Department of destroying his life.

If anything, the FBI's pursuit of Hatfill has intensified since then. For months, he has had repeated near-accidents with FBI surveillance vehicles that were following closely and running red lights to keep up, according to Clawson, a Hatfill friend and former CNN reporter.

A few weeks ago, an agent following Hatfill swore at him and made an obscene gesture when the scientist tried to take his picture, Clawson said.

"The FBI doesn't have anything to show for its anthrax investigation," he said. "So they're trying to provoke him into taking a swing at an FBI agent or doing something else to give them an excuse to lock him up."