A Scientist's Quiet Life Took a Darker Turn

By Joby Warrick, Marilyn W. Thompson and Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 2, 2008

For most of his career, he was a casting agent's vision of a bench scientist: shy, eccentric, nerdy, soft-spoken. But sometime this spring, with the FBI closing in on him, Bruce E. Ivins's life took a dark turn that frightened his closest friends.

In March, police officers summoned to a quiet Frederick neighborhood found the 62-year-old microbiologist unconscious in his home. Four months later, he was admitted to a psychiatric clinic after making wild threats against co-workers at the Army research institute where he kept his lab. Then, a week ago, his therapist urgently petitioned a judge for protection from Ivins. She described a man spiraling out of control, making "homicidal threats, actions, plans."

His death Tuesday from a drug overdose was followed by a revelation even more jarring to those who knew him: a report that Ivins had been implicated in the 2001 anthrax attacks, one of the FBI's biggest unsolved mysteries and most baffling technical cases. Ivins, a leading expert on anthrax vaccines, was on the verge of being indicted in the case, according to officials familiar with the investigation, and took his life by swallowing a large quantity of acetaminophen.

The allegations of a possible link to the case known as "Amerithrax" dumbfounded friends and co-workers who knew Ivins as a gentle, bighearted family man who raised two children in Frederick, volunteered for community charities and played keyboards for the local Catholic church. His work with the deadly anthrax bacteria was devoted to developing more effective vaccines that could save lives in a future biological attack.

"He was passionate about it -- he really cared," said a fellow scientist who co-authored studies with Ivins.

Yet, slowly over the past two years, FBI investigators began to focus on Ivins under the theory that he had used his knowledge of anthrax bacteria to pull off the nation's deadliest episode of biological terrorism. As a researcher for the Army's main lab for studying bioterror agents, Ivins had easy access to anthrax bacteria, including the specific strain of Bacillus anthracis used in the attacks on media outlets and congressional offices in the fall of 2001. His expertise eventually earned him a front-row seat for the FBI's investigation, as he was called upon to help the bureau with its analysis of the wispy powder used in the attacks.

Despite the allegations -- and even after Ivins's apparent plunge into mental illness -- longtime friends and colleagues say it is inconceivable that Ivins could have been a bioterrorist. Many contend that he was driven to depression and suicide because of months of hounding by federal investigators.

"He just looked worried, depressed, anxious, way turned into himself," recalled W. Russell Byrne, an infectious-disease specialist who last saw Ivins on a recent Sunday at St. John the Evangelist, the Roman Catholic church in Frederick to which they both belonged. "It would be overstating it to say he looked like a guy who was being led to his execution, but it's not far off."

Added another co-worker: "Almost everybody . . . believes that he had absolutely nothing to do with Amerithrax."

Ivins was born in 1946, the youngest of three sons who grew up in Lebanon, Ohio. His father owned a drugstore and was active in the local Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce, while his mother stayed at home and volunteered in her sons' PTAs, according to his eldest brother. The family went regularly to Lebanon Presbyterian Church.

"He was a bookworm," said Tom Ivins, 72, of Middletown, Ohio, who said he had been estranged from his youngest brother for two decades. "He liked things like science."

The 1964 yearbook from Lebanon High School shows a thin-faced young man with oversize, dark-rimmed glasses and a raft of extracurricular activities under his name: National Honor Society. Science fair. Current events club. The scholarship team all four years. He ran on the track and cross-country teams, worked on the yearbook and school newspaper, and was in the school choir and the junior and senior class plays.

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