STUDENT WHO KEPT ANTHRAX CHARGED
20 Aug 2003
Source: Hartford Courant, July 23, 2002.
Student Who Kept Anthrax Charged
Government Offers Him An Alternative To Trial
By DAVE ALTIMARI, Courant Staff Writer
A University of Connecticut graduate student who ignored a professor's instruction to destroy vials of anthrax and instead kept them in his laboratory freezer was charged Monday with unlawful possession of the deadly pathogen.
It is one of the first times anybody has been charged with a biological crime under the USA Patriot Act signed into law on Oct. 26, but Tomas Foral will probably not have to step into a federal court to defend himself.
Federal officials are offering Foral, 26, an opportunity to have the charges dismissed if he completes a program designed by probation officials. It is one of the few times in Connecticut history the U.S. attorney's office has placed a defendant in what is called the "pretrial diversion program."
But Foral, of West Hartford, said Monday that he could not understand why federal authorities charged him with a crime.
"I don't know why they decided to go forward," Foral said. "I cooperated fully. I took a lie detector test, let them search my room and gave them access to my bank records."
Foral said he had no choice but to accept the government's offer. He hopes to complete the program, which probably will include some community service, before he completes his thesis involving the study of the West Nile virus.
"If I didn't accept this they would have gone to court and that would have been too expensive for me," Foral said.
Under the new biological weapons statute hurriedly passed by Congress as part of the Patriot Act, it is a crime to knowingly possess anthrax in a quantity that, under the circumstances, is not reasonably justified by a "prophylactic, protective, bona fide research or other peaceful purpose." The charge carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
U.S. Attorney John Danaher said Monday that Foral is being offered the opportunity to have the charges dismissed because of his assistance during the criminal investigation.
The case has languished before a federal grand jury because investigators were having a hard time proving Foral had any criminal intent to do something with the anthrax, sources said.
He had it in his freezer for at least a month and never took it out of the laboratory.
"This whole thing has been misconstrued," Foral said. "I was only saving it as a reference strain."
Investigators discovered two vials of anthrax in Foral's freezer in the university's pathobiology laboratory. The discovery, coming only days after Ottilie Lundgren (case 23), 94, of Oxford, died of inhalation anthrax, forced school officials to close the building for several weeks while the entire facility was tested.
Foral had found five vials of anthrax in a rusty, silver can labeled "anthrax" in a freezer in the lab's basement about a month earlier. He and several other students had been ordered to clean out that freezer.
Foral informed professors of his discovery and was told to put the anthrax through an autoclave to kill it and then discard the vials, officials said. Foral destroyed three vials but kept two of them in his personal freezer alongside some samples of West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis.
An anonymous student called federal officials to alert them someone at UConn may be illegally storing anthrax, but federal officials did not come to the campus until after Lundgren's death. The anthrax that Foral had was in a "wet" form - not the powder sent through the mail that killed five people, including Lundgren.
Even though the anthrax was probably from the 1960s, the cultures grew quickly when they were tested in a state laboratory, sources said. A sample of the anthrax was sent to the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases for storage.
Investigators were also concerned because of the easy access to the school's pathobiology laboratory and Foral's freezer.
Police opened Foral's freezer, where the deadly biological agents were stored, by simply turning a key left in the lock, police sources said. The lock on the freezer door in the basement also was broken, sources said.
As a result of the anthrax discovery, the state Department of Public Health ordered all universities and colleges in the state to do a complete inventory of biological agents in their holdings.
At UConn, officials did a complete inventory of all biological agents and destroyed some that were no longer needed, spokeswoman Karen Grava said Monday.
Grava said new purchasing requirements also were put into place to limit the quantities of any biological agents the school purchases in the future. The university also created a position of environmental manager, with a rank equivalent to dean, to oversee health and safety issues.
Foral is still a graduate student at UConn and officials have declined to say if he will be disciplined.