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Last Updated

10 May 2003

Source: The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, May 10, 2003

Tech professor pleads innocent in plague case


In a federal courtroom filled with his supporters, Thomas Butler, the Texas Tech professor accused of smuggling live plague samples from Tanzania, pleaded innocent to all charges for which he was indicted last month.

A trial date has been set for July 7.

Eric and Janis Blackwell, Butler's neighbors and colleagues, were among the roughly 30 people who attended the hearing.

"This is a wonderful man," Janis Blackwell said. "He wouldn't hurt a flea."

Butler has been on strict supervised release since January, when he sparked an international bioterrorism scare by allegedly reporting that 30 samples of plague had been stolen from his lab.

Local, state and federal authorities worked through the night to track down the missing vials. The next day, Butler submitted a written statement to the FBI admitting that he had destroyed the samples, according to the government's case against him.

He was initially charged with lying to federal agents, but the ensuing investigation brought an additional 14 counts on charges of smuggling, tax fraud, illegal transport of biohazards and other offenses.

The conditions of Butler's re lease were modified Friday in response to a motion filed last week by one of his three attorneys.

The motion argues that the conditions he agreed to were "fundamentally unjust" and "subjected him to humiliation."

Under those conditions, Butler would not have been able to travel to California for his son's graduation, the defense argued.

However, the prosecution noted in its response that Assistant U.S. Attorney Dick Baker told Butler's attorneys on April 30 that he did not object to the trip, provided Butler accounted for his location.

The bond conditions for Butler's release were also modified. The previous bond of $100,000 was raised to $250,000, an amount secured by Butler's home and property. Butler's wife, Elisabeth, secured the bond with her community property interest in the home.

The defense had previously argued against restricting Butler's access to computers. The prosecution noted that Butler has never been restricted from computer access, except for correspondence, including e-mail, to potential witnesses.

The prosecution agreed to release Butler from electronic monitoring and extended his curfew. Butler now is required to be home from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.