For Survivors and Families, Some Relief, Mixed Emotions

By Mary Beth Sheridan, David Nakamura and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 2, 2008

In the seven years since the anthrax attacks sent him to the hospital and nearly killed him, retired D.C. postal worker Leroy Richmond has despaired at times about whether the case would ever be solved.

"I became kind of discouraged," he said yesterday, recalling how the number of agents on the investigation had dwindled at one point. "Then I said to myself, the FBI doesn't normally give up on cases," -- even if "it takes them years and years."

Yesterday, Richmond finally felt a sense of relief. He awakened to the news that Bruce E. Ivins, a Maryland bioweapons expert, was about to be indicted in the attacks when he committed suicide this week.

Ivins's attorney, Paul F. Kemp, maintained yesterday that the scientist was innocent. The Justice Department declined to describe the investigation, saying that some evidence was secret and that officials first had to notify victims and their relatives. One anthrax survivor said he had been told that the FBI is trying to bring together all the families affected for a briefing, perhaps this month.

Richmond and several other victims' relatives said yesterday that the FBI had not contacted them. Still, some said the news brought hope that their long ordeal is finally over.

"This is sort of a defining line, that we can put all this behind us, that it won't happen again to anyone else," said Richmond, 63, of Stafford County.

The anthrax attacks, which killed five people along the East Coast and sickened at least 17 more, spread panic throughout the country, especially coming on the heels of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Among the dead were two of Richmond's co-workers at the Brentwood postal facility in Northeast Washington, which had handled contaminated letters headed for Capitol Hill offices.

The first postal worker to die was Thomas L. "Mo" Morris Jr., 55, of Suitland, a quiet, religious man with a son and two stepchildren. His widow, Mary, who now lives in Illinois, said yesterday that she is grateful for the news she learned from reporters.

"All this time since 2001, there has been much said about what our government wasn't doing, and here we find out, all these years later, that the government was busy and actively investigating," Morris said. "And for that I say thank you to the government."

Another Brentwood worker, Joseph Curseen Jr., 47, of Clinton, a devout Catholic and neighborhood volunteer, died Oct. 22, 2001, a day after Morris.

His father learned about Ivins yesterday from relatives.

"It's closure, and that's the important thing," said Joseph Curseen Sr. of Southeast Washington. He said his only son wouldn't want the family to be destroyed by the pain surrounding his death.

"We've got to learn how to let it go and let God" take over," he said. "We can't carry this torment for the rest of our lives."

Not everyone felt closure, however.

Dena Briscoe, a former colleague of the victims who has led a support group for Brentwood employees, said she never would have imagined the case ending this way -- "not even knowing if he was the person," she said of Ivins. "We're not going to have a trial. We're not going to hear all the facts."

Patrick D. O'Donnell, 42, who had contracted skin anthrax, said he felt mixed emotions yesterday. He said he had received a brief phone call from an FBI agent informing him of the news and saying that the agency is trying to organize a briefing for the victims and families.

"It seems like it just never ends," said O'Donnell, who sorts mail at the regional postal distribution office in Hamilton, N.J. He said he believes he still might have symptoms from the anthrax.

"Mental, physical -- I'm tired all the time, headaches," he said. He's trying to put it behind him, but "every three or four months, something happens and it brings it back to square one. I've been through so much in the last eight years."

Linda Burch, 58, contracted skin anthrax on her face while working at a firm that received mail from the Hamilton Township, N.J., post office, where a worker had been infected. Reached yesterday at her home in Trenton, N.J., Burch said the news about Ivins was positive -- if it is true.

But she said she had moved on since the anthrax attacks. "I have totally forgotten about it and put it in my past," she said.

Richard Schuler, an attorney for the family of Robert Stevens, who died after inhaling anthrax spores while working at the Sun tabloid in Palm Beach, Fla., expressed anger at the news. Schuler said the developments prove what the family has alleged against the federal government in a lawsuit before the Florida Supreme Court.

The investigation's conclusions were "what we said all along: an inside job by someone associated with the government who had the expertise," Schuler said. "All along the government denied that to us."

Schuler said Stevens's widow, Maureen, and three adult children had not been briefed by federal authorities as of 3 p.m. yesterday. Asked how the family has coped since Stevens died, Schuler said: "When you lose a husband and father, it's never the same. They're getting through as best they can. The government's stonewalling has not made it any easier."

David R. Hose Sr., of Winchester, Va., who was hospitalized after inhaling anthrax spores in 2001, was skeptical about the news about Ivins.

Hose, a former State Department mail supervisor, had filed a $12 million lawsuit against the government. He suggested that officials were trying to set up Ivins as a fall guy in a case that has been unsolved.

"Don't believe it," he said of the news, "The poor guy probably died of a heart attack. Would a doctor choose Tylenol as his form of suicide? That doesn't make any sense."

Staff researchers Meg Smith and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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