SCIENCE COULD HELP CRACK ANTHRAX CASE 



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Last Updated

25 Jan 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2002.

Science Could Help to Crack Anthrax Case

by JOSH MEYER and MEGAN GARVEY, Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators, stymied for months in their pursuit of the anthrax killer, said they are laying the groundwork for a science-based prosecution and are watching closely a small number of individuals believed capable of launching the bioterrorist attack-by-mail that left five people dead last fall.

FBI agents here and abroad have interviewed hundreds of people, executed dozens of search warrants, searched for the machine used to copy the letters and reviewed thousands of documents and records in connection with the case, according to those familiar with the investigation.

Still, officials said that they do not have a "prime suspect" in the case and that most of their progress has come in eliminating false leads. They believe their best chance at narrowing the list of potential suspects might lie in a scientific breakthrough that allows researchers to distinguish between stocks of the same strain of anthrax.

The FBI moved forward on that track last week, delivering subpoenas to U.S. laboratories known to have the same virulent Ames strain of anthrax used to kill five people and sicken at least 13 others.

Researchers who received the subpoenas -- believed to have gone to 12 to 20 laboratories -- said they have been asked to follow strict guidelines and then ship samples to Army researchers at Ft. Detrick in Maryland by Friday.

Martin Hugh-Jones, an anthrax expert at Louisiana State University whose laboratory received a subpoena, estimated it would then take scientists working with the FBI "three weeks to a month" to determine if any of those anthrax samples match the stock used in the attack.

But those who have conducted anthrax research point out that the list of samples the FBI is trying to acquire may not be exhaustive because, in the past, researchers traded samples somewhat freely. The government has regulated such exchanges of hazardous materials since 1996. FBI Director Robert Mueller said Friday that the demand for samples -- long expected within the scientific community -- comes now because the agency first wanted to establish investigative standards that they could explain to a jury and that would hold up in court.

Investigators have had to move carefully to establish "scientific procedures that were utilized to make that match, the same way we would have to with fingerprints and DNA and the like," he said.

Mueller noted that the undertaking is "not a simple matter."

"Down the road, we hope to be in a position to prosecute somebody," Mueller said. "And when we are in a position to prosecute the individual responsible for this, we are going to have to come into court and explain to the jury exactly the process we went through to identify this individual."

Scientists have worked aggressively to better understand anthrax since the bioterrorist attack began. Significant progress has been made since mid-November, when an anthrax-laden letter sent to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) was found in barrels of quarantined government mail. The Leahy letter, which investigators opened only after considerable planning so that they could retain as much of the substance as possible, gave researchers enough material to conduct extensive testing on the lethal spores. Those tests are ongoing.

Last month at a conference in Las Vegas, Dr. Paul Keim, a Northern Arizona University researcher who is working closely with the FBI, announced that he had found a way to distinguish between stocks of the Ames strain -- opening the possibility that the source of the attack spores could be definitively determined.

In addition, labs led by Paul Jackson at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Claire M. Fraser of the private Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md., are working on how to determine a genetic fingerprint for the spores contained in the letters sent to Capitol Hill and to the media.

The FBI recently appealed again to the small community of anthrax researchers, asking them to consider whether anyone they know fits the profile of the likely suspect.

Glenn Songer, an anthrax researcher at the University of Arizona, said he doubted the plea would yield much useful information.

"I don't think this is the sort of thing that would be done by a person so out of the ordinary -- out of the normal -- that he or she would stand out," Songer said. "If you were intelligent enough, informed enough to do this sort of thing, you would be intelligent enough to keep it a secret." But another researcher recently alleged that FBI officials already suspected a specific person but that they had been slow to take action because that person had for many years worked on sensitive government projects.

Mueller last week dismissed those allegations, as well as grumblings that the FBI had failed to consult enough anthrax experts.

"Somebody has indicated that we have a suspect and that we have been dragging our feet because ... that person was somehow employed by the federal government at some point," Mueller said. "That is totally inaccurate. We have moved as fast as I think could be expected under the circumstances in all avenues of the investigation."

A federal law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there is no prime suspect in the case but an evolving list of people that numbers "more than a handful."

"A suspect suggests someone that you have information on or that we're moving toward" in a criminal prosecution, the official said. "We're not there yet."

The anthrax attacks have left investigators baffled at many turns since early October, when Robert Stevens (case 5), 63, a tabloid photo editor in Florida, became the first person to die of inhalation anthrax in the U.S. since 1976.

In fact, Stevens' illness at first was called "isolated" by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, who suggested he had contracted the bacteria while drinking from a stream.

But a week after Stevens' death, evidence of a bioterrorist attack began to emerge. A case of skin anthrax was confirmed in an assistant to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw (case 2).

In all, four anthrax-laced letters -- to Brokaw, Leahy, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and the New York Post --were recovered. Investigators believe others were sent but not recovered.

Public health officials were slow to recognize the danger to those who worked in the postal facilities where the tainted letters were processed, and two Washington-area mail workers -- Joseph P. Curseen Jr., 47 (case 16), and Thomas L. Morris Jr., 55 (case 15) -- died.

Still unexplained is how two women -- one in New York City and the other in rural Connecticut -- came in contact with the same deadly bacteria. Public health officials and law enforcement agents could find no trace of anthrax at any place the women were known to have been.

Because their cases fell so far from the known path of the anthrax letters, investigators at first thought the women's deaths might provide clues that would lead them to the sender of the letters.

Kathy T. Nguyen, 61 (case 22), lived in the Bronx and worked at a hospital in Manhattan. She rode the subway regularly but had few close friends. By the time investigators determined she was ill from inhalation anthrax, she was on a ventilator.

Perhaps most puzzling is the death of Ottilie W. Lundgren, 94 (case 23), who never left her Connecticut home without assistance and kept a very limited schedule.

Even before Lundgren's death on Nov. 21, the FBI had released a profile of the likely perpetrator, describing a "lone wolf" without terrorist links, an adult male with scientific knowledge who was familiar with the Trenton, N.J., area where the letters were mailed.

Still Mueller, whose comments last week were his most extensive on the anthrax case in some time, said the investigation was proceeding in a "number of directions" and that he could not rule out a tie-in between the sender and a terrorist group.

"We are not focusing on just one facility or even a series of facilities. We are open to any possibilities," he said. "I would be reluctant to specify where we think ultimately we will find the individual."