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Last Updated

01 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Post, August 1, 2003

Md. Pond Produces No Anthrax Microbes

FBI Sought Clues In Deadly Attacks

By Allan Lengel and Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post Staff Writers

Lab tests of soil samples taken from a Frederick pond that the FBI drained in June have shown no traces of anthrax bacteria, law enforcement sources said, a disappointment to authorities who were hoping the high-stakes gamble would pay off.

The FBI spent about $250,000 and three weeks draining 1.45 million gallons of water from the pond in a search for evidence -- including clothing and soil samples -- that might lead to the culprit who sent the deadly anthrax bacteria in the mail that killed five people and sickened 17 others in the fall of 2001.

But the search netted nothing more than a hodgepodge of items -- a gun, a bicycle, fishing lures -- none of which appeared to be linked to the case, sources said.

"Clearly there were no home runs," said one law enforcement source, who acknowledged that technicians had found nothing after completing tests on materials dredged from the pond.

Debra Weierman, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington field office, declined to comment yesterday.

Law enforcement sources said FBI officials knew the laborious undertaking was a long shot but, after much internal debate, decided to proceed rather than be second-guessed as to whether they were being thorough enough.

With the latest excursion in the Frederick Municipal Forest leading to a dead end, investigators are continuing to work with scientists to genetically code the anthrax bacteria in hopes of tracing it to a particular lab, law enforcement sources said.

Investigators also are retracing some steps in the probe and re-interviewing people, a common investigative technique used in hard-to-crack cases in need of fresh leads.

Investigators have turned again to the anthrax attacks at American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla., where photo editor Robert Stevens (case 5) died and mailroom employee Ernesto Blanco (case 7) fell seriously ill, sources said. Blanco's daughter, Maria Orth, said the FBI interviewed her father in late June but had told him not to disclose details of the interview.

The FBI's interest in the Frederick forest first surfaced publicly last December when agents conducted a search of ponds and the forest, about eight miles from the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick. The institute is one of the nation's primary anthrax research centers.

The search of the area was prompted by a tip that Steven J. Hatfill, a bioterrorism expert who once worked as a researcher at the institute, had talked hypothetically about how he might dispose of contaminated materials in the water. Authorities have identified him as a "person of interest" in the investigation.

"It comes as no news to Dr. Hatfill that the search of the pond yielded nothing," Hatfill's attorney, Thomas Connolly, said yesterday. "Dr. Hatfill had no involvement in the anthrax attack. It is now time for those law enforcement officials who have orchestrated a campaign of smears to do the honorable thing and issue an apology to Dr. Hatfill and an apology to the taxpayers for spending a quarter-million dollars on a wild goose chase."

In December, divers found a plastic box with two holes that resembled a glove box used to safely handle chemicals. Something resembling a boot lace, attached to the box, yielded a false positive in a test for anthrax spores; a subsequent test came up negative, law enforcement sources have said.

Some investigators theorized that the box was used for the anthrax attacks before it was dumped in the pond. Another theory was that the culprit produced anthrax spores in the box while it was submerged to lessen the possibility of exposure.

But others believed the box was unrelated to the case and may have been used to produce some type of illegal street drug.

A law enforcement source said the FBI continued to analyze the plastic box and other items recovered from the pond by divers over the winter.

The excursion into the Frederick area brought the FBI no closer to showing that Hatfill had any ties to the case.

"Deductive reasoning says that if you think a person is your guy, but you can't find anything to put him in the game, you've got to keep looking at others," said one law enforcement source.