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Last Updated

07 Aug 2008

Source: Washington Post, August 7, 2008.

Acquaintances and Counselor Recall the Scientist's Dark Side

By Amy Goldstein, Anne Hull and Julie Tate, Washington Post Staff Writers

More than a year before the anthrax attacks that killed five people in 2001, Bruce E. Ivins told a counselor that he was interested in a young woman who lived out of town and that he had "mixed poison" that he took with him when he went to watch her play in a soccer match.

"If she lost, he was going to poison her," said the counselor, who treated Ivins at a Frederick clinic four or five times during the summer of 2000. She said Ivins emphasized that he was a skillful scientist who "knew how to do things without people finding out."

The counselor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an a two-hour interview yesterday that she was so alarmed by her client's emotionless description of a specific, homicidal plan that she immediately alerted the head of her clinic and a psychiatrist who had treated Ivins, as well as the Frederick Police Department. She said the police told her that nothing could be done because she did not have the woman's address or last name.

The account of the counselor, who met with the FBI for the first time early last week, is part of a dark portrait of Ivins that emerges from documents made public yesterday by the Justice Department, as well as e-mails, chat room postings, and an interview with a former graduate student at the University of North Carolina who said Ivins was obsessed with her sorority when he was at the university three decades ago.

These glimpses of Ivins, involving episodes predating the anthrax-laced envelopes that were sent through the mail in the fall of 2001, conflict markedly with the depiction of him by many friends and colleagues. They have described him as a churchgoing family man and volunteer whose mental health eroded -- culminating in suicide -- because of escalating pressure applied on him by federal investigators as they came to regard him as the prime suspect in the attacks.

The former graduate student, Nancy L. Haigwood, was studying microbiology at Chapel Hill in the mid-1970s when Ivins, who was doing post-doctoral work there, took an obsessive interest in her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. According to Haigwood, now the director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Portland, Ivins's "intrusive" questions made her uncomfortable, but his curiosity did not end when they both left North Carolina.

In 1982, after Ivins took a job at Fort Detrick in Maryland and Haigwood coincidentally had moved to Gaithersburg, Haigwood walked out of her apartment one morning and discovered that someone had spray-painted "KKG" in red letters on her boyfriend's car and on a fence behind their house. Haigwood reported the incident to the police and told them she suspected Ivins. "It was very upsetting," she said, but when she confronted Ivins, he denied that he did it.

Haigwood said she also thinks that Ivins wrote a letter in her name the next year to the Frederick News-Post, claiming to be a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. The letter defended hazing. "No matter what the press may say about us, I'm still proud to be in a sorority, proud to be counted among our country's very best," it said.

Ivins's behavior prompted Haigwood to contact the FBI in 2002 after the American Society for Microbiology circulated a note saying that the person responsible for the anthrax attacks was probably a microbiologist and asking members to report any tips.

"I think the people who work with Bruce do not know him completely," Haigwood said last night.

E-mails and chat room postings also point to Ivins's preoccupation with Kappa Kappa Gamma, whose executive director this week said sorority members had been interviewed by investigators. According to government documents, Ivins told a confidential informant that he had broken into a KKG house to steal a secret sorority handbook. The informant believed the incident had occurred at UNC.

Writing under the name Jimmy Flathead, Ivins was a frequent editor of the KKG Wikipedia page during the past two years, debating online whether certain sorority sisters should be mentioned. In a post on an online forum called GreekChat he wrote in September 2006 that a KKG member was one of "two of the people (yes, they're friends) that I admire most in my life. . . . Both are world-renowned scientists and pioneers in their respective fields."

Ivins's e-mails released by the Justice Department -- and other writings discovered by The Washington Post -- also reveal a man intensely focused on his and his family's mental health. "The skeletons are all out," he wrote in one GreekChat posting from 2006. "I'm having a devil of a time rounding them back up. Let's see . . . how about mom who was an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. . . . Is that bones enough?"

E-mails between Ivins and a friend, also released by the government, show that the bioweapons researcher sought help in February 2000 from a psychiatrist who immediately prescribed antidepressants. Early that April, he wrote that at times "it's like I'm not only sitting at my desk doing work, I'm also a few feet away watching me do it. There's nothing like living in both the first person singular AND the third person singular!"

By late June, he was writing that the medication was not working. "What is REALLY scary is the paranoia. . . . Ominously, a lot of the feelings of isolation -- and desolation -- that I went through before college are returning."

It was about this time that he became a client at Comprehensive Counseling Associates, about 1 1/2 miles from his home in Frederick. He began weekly individual sessions with a licensed clinical professional counselor there. The counselor said she remembers him as precise and unfailingly polite, yet sometimes "very cold, without emotion."

On his second or third visit, the counselor said, "he got bizarre." Ivins talked of a young woman living somewhere in the Northeast and said he planned to drive to watch her play in a soccer game. "I think he was infatuated or thinking about getting involved," recalled the counselor, who no longer lives in Maryland and does not have access to the detailed notes she took in her sessions with Ivins.

He did not mention that he was married and had two children, the counselor recalled. Even so, she told him it would be inappropriate for a man of his age, then in his mid-50s, to travel to watch the woman, she said.

When Ivins returned the following week, he told her he had attended the soccer game anyway. That day, she said, he told her about the poison he had made but said he had not used it because the woman's team had won. She recalled that he also said he had grudges against several people from his past who he said deserved to be punished and that he knew how to find out where anyone lived.

He told her these things with "flat affect [and] total indifference," she said. "He obviously thought about this a lot. He made the poison, took it along. It was not a crime of impulse. It was planned with cunning."

Their last session did not last the full hour. By then the counselor had alerted people that she believed Ivins was homicidal. Her client said he no longer trusted her. She said she would no longer work with him. "It's not going well with the counselor I'm going to," Ivins wrote in a late-July e-mail released yesterday.

The counselor had not heard from Ivins for years until he called out of the blue about two months ago. Politely, "he asked whether I remembered him," she said. And he asked whether she could give him his records for his attorney.

When FBI agents called her late last month -- near the day Ivins swallowed a lethal dose of Tylenol -- she replied, "In all my 25 years of counseling, there is only one client the FBI would call me about."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.