PLAGUE PROBE TURNS TO SEARCH OF TECH DOCTOR'S HOME



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Last Updated

18 Jan 2003

Source: The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, January 18, 2003

Plague probe turns to search of Tech doctor's home

BY ELIZABETH LANGTON, AVALANCHE-JOURNAL

Federal authorities on Friday searched the home of a Texas Tech doctor who this week prompted a national scare with reports of plague bacteria missing from a university lab.

About a dozen agents with the FBI and other federal agencies spent several hours Friday afternoon inside the Lubbock home of Dr. Thomas C. Butler. Agents leaving the home refused to comment.

Butler, 61, remained jailed without bond Friday on charges of making a false statement to a federal agent. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

According to court documents, Butler told a supervisor and authorities that 30 vials containing a bacterial agent that can be developed into bubonic plague were missing from his lab.

Butler later admitted to fabricating that story to hide the fact that he accidentally destroyed the samples, court records say.

Butler's attorney, Floyd Holder of Lubbock, said the government's scenario accuses his client of perpetrating a hoax, "and he's not guilty of a hoax."

Holder said he believes federal agents persuaded Butler to accept their explanation about the missing bacteria.

"He may think he knows (what happened to it)," Holder said. "I'm not sure. I imagine the FBI is sure."

FBI officials said Wednesday that the samples "have been accounted for."

According to a Tech police report made Tuesday, Butler told an officer that the plague samples had been stolen.

Butler told police that on Jan. 1 he had 30 test tubes in a rack on a table in his laboratory. On the morning of Jan. 11, Butler "discovered that person(s) had taken the test tubes from the rack," the report said.

The lab is locked at all times, but Butler is not the only one with access, the report says.

In a written statement made after questioning by FBI agents, Butler wrote: "I made a misjudgment by not telling (the supervisor) that the plague bacteria had been accidentally destroyed earlier rather than erroneously first found missing."

He said he didn't realize his story would result in "such an extensive investigation," ac cording to court documents.

Federal agents first searched Butler's home early Wednesday morning, Holder said.

They served a sealed federal search warrant Friday seeking financial records, records concerning Butler's travel inside and outside the United States since 2001 and documents "or other evidence of importation, transportation, shipment and/or possession of biological and chemical" agents.

Authorities removed computers and computer disks belonging to Butler, his wife and two children, Holder said.

"I think we would generally refer to it as a fishing expedition," he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dick Baker declined to comment.

Butler, who was chief of the infectious diseases division of the department of internal medicine at Tech's medical school, has been involved in plague research for more than 25 years and is internationally recognized in the field.

Tech officials said they are puzzled by Butler's actions.

"That remains a mystery to most of us, what his motive might have been," said Glen Provost, vice president of health safety at Tech's Health Sciences Center. "I just can't figure it out."

Butler was the only person with authorized access to the bacteria, which must be registered with the International Biohazards Committee and the government.

The university has placed Butler on paid leave, changed the locks on his laboratory, blocked him from computer access and barred him from campus.

Provost said he wonders why Butler would risk his career and reputation by his actions.

"A lot of people are obviously wondering that as well," he said.

A detention and preliminary hearing for Butler is scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday in the courtroom of federal Magistrate Nancy Koenig. The judge will decide then whether to set a bond for Butler's release.

The U.S. Attorney's Office plans to oppose Butler's release. Court documents filed Thursday said his actions present a risk to public safety.

The report of the missing vials triggered a terrorism-alert plan and showed how jittery Americans are over the threat of a biological attack, as dozens of federal agents converged on Lubbock and reports of the missing bacteria became instant national news.

The public did not learn of the report of missing vials until early Wednesday, but hospitals and medical personnel were notified Tuesday as part of the city's post-Sept. 11 emergency plan.

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.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)