Scientist Set to Discuss Plea Bargain In Deadly Attacks Commits Suicide

A top U.S. Biodefense researcher apparently committed suicide just as the Justice Department was about to file criminal charges against him. The charges were in connection to the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people. Video by AP
By Carrie Johnson, Carol D. Leonnig and Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 2, 2008

Authorities investigating the deadly 2001 anthrax mailings used previously unavailable techniques to trace the lethal powder to the office where scientist Bruce E. Ivins worked at the sprawling Army biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., according to sources briefed on the investigation.

Investigators were so certain about the connection that they had scheduled a meeting for last Tuesday with Ivins's attorneys to discuss a plea bargain that would have sent the scientist to prison for life but spared him a death sentence, according to sources briefed on the government's case. But barely two hours before the meeting was to occur, Ivins died of an overdose of Tylenol that he had ingested over the weekend, the sources added. The death was ruled a suicide.

Ivins, 62, a prominent researcher of inhaled anthrax bacteria who had personally tested the lethal powder as part of the anthrax investigation, emerged in a news report yesterday as the latest focus of the seven-year search for a culprit. Five people were killed in the attacks and 17 others became ill.

But no sooner had the news broken than Paul F. Kemp, a Bethesda attorney who has represented Ivins for more than a year, declared that the FBI had the wrong man -- again. The bureau had spent years attempting to prove that Steven J. Hatfill, a researcher at the same laboratory, had committed the anthrax attacks before agreeing last month to a $5.8 million out-of-court settlement of his privacy lawsuit.

"We assert his innocence in these killings, and would have established that at trial," Kemp said in a statement yesterday.

The Justice Department, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service issued a joint statement yesterday afternoon describing "substantial progress" in the investigation of the mailings to congressional and news media figures in September and October 2001.

They cited the use of "new and sophisticated scientific tools," but they did not name Ivins and they offered few details to support their claims. Search warrants and other materials that would shed light on Ivins's connection to the case remained under court seal.

What did become clear yesterday, however, was that in recent months, Ivins had come under scrutiny of FBI agents who watched his house, searched his office and interviewed co-workers about his access to anthrax powder and his increasingly odd behavior.

Federal officials say they are considering whether to close the investigation, a step that would allow them to fulfill their promise yesterday to "provide additional details in the near future" and a signal that they think that no one else is guilty in the attacks.

According to one source who received a limited briefing on the investigation, the FBI did not have solid evidence that would have directly linked Ivins to the attacks. Agents believed, however, that they could show that Ivins had ample access to the specific strain used.

But two sources familiar with the investigation contended that the case relied heavily on circumstantial evidence. While it narrowed the number of people with access to the anthrax bacteria, it could not eliminate even the researchers who shared his office.

Investigators obtained lab access records to determine Ivins's whereabouts when the spores were mailed, one source said, part of the effort by the "Amerithrax" task force that has included 75 searches and more than 9,000 interviews.

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