PROFESSOR ARRESTED IN MISSING VIALS CASE
16 Jan 2003
Source: Associated Press, January 16, 2003
Professor Arrested in Missing Vials Case
By BETSY BLANEY, Associated Press Writer
LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — When 30 vials of a deadly bacteria that causes bubonic plague were reported missing from Texas Tech University, anxiety here was palpable. Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge contacted the mayor, a terrorism alert was triggered and dozens of investigators from the FBI and other agencies converged.
But officials said Wednesday the bacteria wasn't missing after all. They alleged a Texas Tech professor had destroyed the vials before reporting their disappearance.
Dr. Thomas C. Butler was arrested Wednesday on a complaint of giving false information to the FBI. According to U.S. Attorney Dick Baker, Butler said Tuesday that vials containing bacteria obtained from tissue samples from East Africa were missing when "truth in fact, as he well knew, he had destroyed them prior to that.''
Butler was booked into the Lubbock County Jail. He was scheduled to make his initial court appearance Thursday.
"We have accounted for all those missing vials and we have determined that there is no danger to public safety whatsoever,'' Lubbock FBI Lupe Gonzalez said.
The samples, among the 180 the school was using for research on the treatment of plague, were reported missing to campus police Tuesday night. Butler was the only person with authorized access to the bacteria, which is classified as a select agent that has to be registered with the International Biohazards Committee and with the federal government.
University spokeswoman Cindy Rugeley said Butler, the project's principal investigator, made the report.
Butler is chief of the infectious diseases division of the department of internal medicine at Texas Tech's medical school. The university said he has been involved in plague research for more than 25 years and is internationally recognized in the field. He has been at Texas Tech since 1987.
Dr. Richard Homan, Texas Tech School of Medicine dean, said the bacteria form of plague being used for research "was not weaponized in any way.''
Authorities declined to elaborate on what happened to the missing vials. When pressed about what happened, officials repeatedly responded that the samples "have been accounted for.''
Baker said FBI agents interviewed Butler on Tuesday. He said the complaint noted the false statement resulted in a huge investigation involving about 60 state, local and federal agents.
The public did not learn of the report of missing vials until early Wednesday. But hospitals and medical personnel were notified Tuesday, part of the city's post-Sept. 11 emergency plan.
Samples were kept in a locked area of Butler's lab, which is not in a high-traffic area. Butler kept logs on batches of samples, and one batch was reported missing, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
The secure area does not have a surveillance camera but access is controlled, officials said.
"I don't know the precise number (of keys), but it's limited,'' said Texas Tech Chancellor David Smith. "Policy (for federal grants) was not violated. This is one where we're looking at the human element.''
Plague — along with anthrax, smallpox and a few other deadly agents — is on a watch list distributed by the government, which wants to make sure doctors and hospitals recognize a biological attack quickly.
Health officials say 10 to 20 people in the United States contract plague each year, usually through infected fleas or rodents. The plague can be treated with antibiotics, but about one in seven U.S. cases is fatal.
Texas Tech said that officials thought it was "prudent'' to get law enforcement involved because of current concerns about bioterrorism.
The report was taken seriously at the highest levels of national security.
Lubbock Mayor Marc McDougal said he received a telephone call Wednesday from Tom Ridge, head of the Department of Homeland Security, offering contact information and assistance from his Washington office.
The FBI sent agents to Lubbock, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took part in the investigation. About 60 investigators from the FBI and other agencies converged on the medical school Tuesday night.
Smith said university policy was not violated, and no administrative action had been taken against faculty or staff as of Wednesday afternoon.
"We're in the process of an internal review,'' he said.