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Last Updated

31 Dec 2002

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, September 2, 2002.

Culprit in anthrax attacks still elusive

Concern grows that whoever sent the contaminated letters will never be caught. The attacks did result in stepped-up efforts against bioterrorism.

Inquirer Staff Writer

With the trail to suspects in last fall's anthrax attacks growing colder, the FBI returned to the quarantined headquarters of tabloid publisher American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla., last week to search for clues.

But the latest development in "Amerithrax," as the FBI calls the investigation, seemed to underscore the fact that no one has been charged, arrested or even identified as a suspect almost a year after the nation's worst episode of bioterrorism.

Norma Wallace (case 11), 57, who nearly died in October from anthrax she inhaled while working at the Hamilton, N.J., postal facility, has become increasingly disillusioned.

"I get depressed when I think about the fact that there's no resolution. They haven't found the person or persons responsible," the soft-spoken woman said from her home in Willingboro. "I get cynical. It's very frustrating."

To be sure, the anthrax attacks have prodded all levels of government to plan and prepare for the once-unthinkable. But with each passing month, concern grows that whoever sent the anthrax-tainted letters may get away with it - get away with killing five people; sickening 13; triggering a nationwide panic; and forcing the costly quarantine of congressional buildings, two East Coast postal centers, and the American Media headquarters.

"Unfortunately, it's the kind of crime where we may never know who did it," said Gregory Evans, a bioterrorism and public-health expert at St. Louis University.

The FBI recently doubled its reward to $2.5 million for information leading to the anthrax terrorist.

Scientists plan to use new methods to compare the latest spore samples collected from the American Media building with anthrax found in letters sent to the Washington offices of Democratic Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Authorities previously found spores on the desk of photo editor Robert Stevens (case 5), the first person to die of an anthrax infection last fall. Another American Media worker became ill and was hospitalized for more than three weeks (case 7).

The company, which publishes six supermarket tabloids, including the Enquirer, Globe and Weekly World News, moved its headquarters shortly after its building was federally quarantined in October.

While the sealed building has been fenced off and abandoned, the Hart Senate Office building reopened in January after a high-tech, $14 million fumigation.

The huge Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C., began its cleanup last month, to be followed by the Hamilton center - at a combined cost of $35 million.

On Aug. 22, during a news conference, Attorney General John Ashcroft sought to reassure the public that "progress has been made" in the case.

"There is a sense of intensity in the investigation," Ashcroft said. "But frankly, the ultimate plateau that's necessary is for us to cross a threshold which provides a basis for prosecutable facts."

Federal authorities say 20 to 30 scientists are under scrutiny, but the only one they have talked about publicly is bio-defense expert Steven Hatfill.

Hatfill - who has submitted to FBI interviews, searches and lie-detector tests, and offered blood and handwriting samples - recently called two news conferences to angrily declare his innocence. The media have begun to compare him to Richard Jewell and Wen Ho Lee, subjects of other high-profile FBI investigations that turned into embarrassing failures.

Three Chester city officials, natives of Pakistan, are still in limbo, neither cleared nor charged with any crime eight months after the FBI raided their homes in an apparent search for biological weapons.

"You would think there would be only a limited number of people capable of doing" the production and mailing of weapons-grade anthrax, said Evans, the bioterrorism expert. "Why they [federal agents] can't trace this is a mystery to me. Certainly, tremendous resources have been invested" in the investigation.

The anthrax attacks, while unsolved, have prompted dramatic efforts to prepare for bioterrorism:

All mail sent to federal offices in the Capitol is irradiated at a Logan, N.J., plant, a detour that has added to the Postal Service's growing budget deficit. The agency says that ultimately, it plans to install biohazard detection systems in facilities nationwide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a bioterrorism program to coordinate federal, state and local preparation for biological or chemical attacks. The agency also has set up a rapid-response laboratory and helped develop a national medical stockpile and an early warning communications network.

States have received federal financing for biopreparedness. New Jersey, for example, has used $27 million for an elaborate network of emergency services, testing labs, disease surveillance, crisis simulations, and supplementary communications systems.

The nation's only maker of anthrax vaccine resolved manufacturing problems and, in February, resumed shipment of the shots. A month later, a National Academy of Sciences panel endorsed the vaccine, rebutting persistent concerns about its safety. In June, the government announced that precautionary vaccination of certain soldiers will continue, while a vaccine stockpile will be reserved for exposed civilians.

Researchers are also developing new vaccines. Wallace and five other survivors have contributed to this effort by giving periodic blood samples.

"That's my contribution. It's also a way for me to say, 'Thank you, Lord, for giving me another chance,' " Wallace said.

A divorced mother of two grown children, she praised her doctors and treatment at Virtua-Memorial Hospital Burlington County in Mount Holly. She still has persistent fatigue, joint pains, and shortness of breath, and like all but one of the anthrax survivors, has been unable to return to work. She is receiving worker's compensation.

She said she was also in therapy to cope with flashbacks, insomnia and fears.

"I keep running through what happened in my head and thinking, 'This couldn't have happened unless that happened,' " she said. "I think it's going to take years before the truth comes out."