Colleagues divided over guilt of anthrax murders suspect

 

UNITED STATES:Army scientist's suicide leaves many questions, report Joby Warrick, Marilyn Thompsonand Aaron Davis

FOR NEARLY seven years, scientist Bruce Ivins and a small circle of fellow anthrax specialists at Fort Detrick's Army medical lab in Maryland lived in a curious limbo: they served as consultants for the FBI in the investigation of the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks, yet they were all potential suspects.

Over lunch in the bacteriology division, nervous scientists would share stories about their latest unpleasant encounters with the FBI and ponder whether they should hire lawyers, according to one of Ivins' former supervisors.

In tactics that the researchers considered heavy-handed and often threatening, they were interviewed and polygraphed as early as 2002, and reinterviewed numerous times. Their labs were searched and their computers and equipment carted away.

The FBI eventually focused on Ivins, whom federal prosecutors were planning to indict when he committed suicide last week. Officials asserted that Ivins had the skills and access to equipment needed to turn anthrax bacteria into an ultra-fine powder that could be used as a lethal weapon.

Court documents and tapes also reveal a therapist's deep concern that Ivins (62) was homicidal and obsessed with revenge during his final months when, friends say, he fell into depression under the strain of constant FBI scrutiny. A social worker, Jean Duley, passed on her concerns to the FBI after receiving death threats from Ivins.

Duley became so worried that she petitioned a local judge for a protective order against Ivins. According to an audio recording of the hearing, she said she had seen Ivins as a therapist for six months, and thought he had tried to kill people in the past.

"As far back as the year 2000, [Ivins] has actually attempted to murder several other people, [including] through poisoning," she said. "He is a revenge killer, when he feels that he's been slighted ... especially towards women. He plots and actually tries to carry out revenge killings," she told a judge.

She described a July 9th group therapy session in which Ivins allegedly talked of mass murder.

"He was extremely agitated, out of control," she said. Ivins told the group he had bought a gun, and proceeded to lay out a "long and detailed homicidal plan", she said.

"Because he was about to be indicted on capital murder charges, he was going to go out in a blaze of glory; that he was going to take everybody out with him," she said.

Yet, colleagues and friends remained convinced that Ivins was innocent. They contended that he had neither the motive nor the means to create the lethal powder that was sent by mail to news outlets and congressional offices in the summer and autumn of 2001.

Mindful of FBI mistakes in fingering others in the case, many are very sceptical that the bureau has gotten it right this time.

"I really don't think he's the guy. I say to the FBI: 'Show me your evidence,'" said Jeffrey Adamovicz, former director of the bacteriology division at US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID.

"A lot of the tactics they used were designed to isolate him from his support. The FBI just continued to push his buttons."

Investigators are so confident of Ivins' involvement that they have been debating since Friday whether to close the seven-year-old anthrax investigation. A government source said that the probe could be shut down as early as today. No charges are likely against others, that source added.

Once the case is closed, the FBI and justice department will face questions - and possibly public hearings - from congressional oversight committees, which have been largely shut out of the case for the past five years.

One bioweapons expert familiar with the FBI investigation said that Ivins indeed possessed the skills needed to create the dust-fine powder used in the attacks. At the Army lab where he worked, Ivins specialised in making sophisticated preparations of anthrax bacteria spores for use in animal tests, said the expert, who requested anonymity because the investigation remains active.

Ivins' daily routine included the use of processes and equipment the anthrax terrorist likely used in making his weapons. He also is known to have had ready access to the specific strain of Bacillus anthracis used in the attack - a strain found to match samples found in Ivins' lab, he said.

But others, including former colleagues and scientists with backgrounds in biological weapons defence, disagreed that Ivins could have created the anthrax powder even if motivated to do so.

"USAMRIID doesn't deal with powdered anthrax," said Richard Spertzel, who worked with Ivins at the Army lab. "I don't think there's anyone there who would have the foggiest idea how to do it. You would need to have the opportunity, the capability and the motivation, and he didn't possess any of those."

Authorities cast doubt on Saturday on reports that Ivins had acted for financial gain based on patents and scientific advances he had made. They say the government restricts income from inventions produced in its laboratories to no more than $150,000 per year, but the amount is often considerably less.

Jaye Holly, who lived next door to the Ivinses until a month ago, said she couldn't believe that her former neighbour, who was obsessed with grass recycling and drove a 20-year-old van, would endanger others for financial gain.

"I can't imagine him being involved in a scheme to make money or to make a profit, especially one that would put people at risk or even die," Holly said. "That's not the Bruce we knew. He was sweet, friendly. I mean, he was into grass recycling."

- (LA Times-Washington Post service)