The Los Angeles Times broke the story this morning of Bruce Ivins, who worked at Fort Detrick for 18 years and had been informed of an FBI investigation and impending DOJ prosecution against him in the still-unsolved 2001 anthrax attacks. He committed suicide Tuesday just as the feds were closing in:
Ivins, whose name had not been disclosed publicly as a suspect in the case, played a central role in research to improve anthrax vaccines by preparing anthrax formulations used in experiments on animals.
Regarded as a skilled microbiologist, Ivins also helped the FBI analyze the powdery material recovered from one of the anthrax-tainted envelopes sent to a U.S. senator’s office in Washington.
Ivins died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital after ingesting a massive dose of prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine, said a friend and colleague, who declined to be identified out of concern that he would be harassed by the FBI.
The death — without any mention of suicide — was announced to Ivins’ colleagues at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, through a staffwide e-mail.
“People here are pretty shook up about it,” said Caree Vander Linden, a spokeswoman for USAMRIID, who said she was not at liberty to discuss details surrounding the death.
The anthrax mailings killed five people, crippled national mail service, shut down a Senate office building and spread fear of further terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The extraordinary turn of events followed the government’s payment in June of a settlement valued at $5.82 million to a former government scientist, Steven J. Hatfill, who was long targeted as the FBI’s chief suspect despite a lack of any evidence that he had ever possessed anthrax.
The payout to Hatfill, a highly unusual development that all but exonerated him in the mailings, was an essential step to clear the way for prosecuting Ivins, according to lawyers familiar with the matter.
Federal investigators moved away from Hatfill — for years the only publicly identified “person of interest” — and ultimately concluded that Ivins was the culprit after FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III changed leadership of the investigation in late 2006.
The FBI’s new top investigators — Vincent B. Lisi and Edward W. Montooth — instructed agents to reexamine leads or potential suspects that may have received insufficient attention. Moreover, significant progress was made in analyzing genetic properties of the anthrax powder recovered from letters addressed to two senators.
The renewed efforts led the FBI back to USAMRIID, where agents first questioned scientists in December 2001, a few weeks after the fatal mailings.
There still have been no media mea culpas in the public lynching of Steven Hatfill.
There is still no resolution on the anthrax attacks–resolution the public deserves to have and the victims’ families needs to know.
Reminder of those killed:
* Bob Stevens, 63, picture editor of the Sun newspaper, died on 5 October in Boca Raton, Florida. Anthrax spores were found on his computer keyboard
* Thomas Morris Jr, 55, Washington, worked at the Brentwood office which handled an anthrax-laced letter sent to Senator Tom Daschle
* Joseph Curseen, 47, worked at the same office
* Kathy Nguyen, 61, worked in a New York hospital
* Ottilie Lundgren, 94, lived in a rural community in Connecticut. Her case and that of Ms Nguyen are the only ones that have not been traced to tainted mail
And a reminder of the spirited response of then-NYPost editorial assistant Johanna Huden, one of the infected anthrax survivors:
Ivins’ suicide should not end the search for answers.
Previous anthrax blogging here.
Tribute to Joseph Curseen: They called him “Little Joe”