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.

Ivins entered the University of Cincinnati that fall and earned three degrees there: a B.S. with honors in 1968 and master's and doctoral degrees in microbiology in 1971 and 1976, respectively. His dissertation focused on different aspects of toxicity in disease-causing bacteria.

When he applied to Fort Detrick in the late 1980s, he had "an impressive résumé," said John Ezzell, a former top scientist there who was part of a hiring committee that selected Ivins to work on the human anthrax vaccine. "We thought he worked out really well. He was a critical part of our vaccine studies." Ezzell said Ivins participated in numerous animal experiments testing how the vaccine protected against various types of anthrax exposure.

Ezzell considered Ivins a friend and said they sometimes shared hotel rooms when they traveled to professional conferences. "Most of the time, he was very happy and outgoing," he said. "He did good work. He was very conscientious, and he worked long hours to get the work done."

Ezzell said the experiments did not involve anthrax in its dried form, the type found in the letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) that was so finely ground it could immediately become airborne. Ivins worked with small teams of scientists; their findings had global significance in the field of anthrax studies and were later used by opponents of a mandatory vaccination program instituted by the Pentagon that has been highly controversial.

Meryl Nass, a physician and leader in the vaccine opposition movement, met Ivins at a conference in the early 1990s, and they talked regularly over the next decade. She said Ivins told her he had a chronic blood disorder and feared that it might be linked to the anthrax vaccine booster shots he had to take to work in the Fort Detrick laboratory.

"He had some issues with work," Nass said in an interview.

Ivins eventually would be awarded the Defense Department's highest honor for civilian performance for helping to resurrect a controversial vaccine that could protect against anthrax. At a March 2003 ceremony, Ivins described the award, which he received along with several colleagues, as unexpected. "Awards are nice. But the real satisfaction is knowing the vaccine is back on-line," he told a military publication.

After the anthrax mailings in October 2001, the Fort Detrick labs went into a frenetic response, testing suspicious mail and packages virtually round-the-clock. Ivins was part of a team that analyzed the handwritten letter sent to Daschle, packed with Bacillus anthracis spores that matched the primary strain used in Fort Detrick research.

In early 2002, without notifying his supervisors, Ivins began sampling areas in the Detrick lab space that he believed might be contaminated with anthrax. He took unauthorized samples from the lab containment areas and later acknowledged to Army officials that he had violated protocol.

Ivins's odd behavior was detailed in an Army investigation of the matter, but he did not surface as a potential suspect in the mailings case. "He was not on my radar," said a Senate source whose office was briefed on the FBI's progress.

In fact, in early June 2003, when the FBI drained a pond in rural Maryland in search of clues to the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks, Ivins was one of the Red Cross volunteers who brought investigators coffee and donuts. Investigators, however, singled him out and asked him to leave "because he was somebody involved in the investigation," said Byrne, Ivins's former colleague and fellow parishioner.

Outside the lab, Ivins's neighbors, friends and pastor say, he played the piano every Sunday at what he jokingly called "the hippie Mass" in the school hall at St. John the Evangelist. He played keyboards in a Celtic band and founded the Frederick Jugglers.

Robert and Bonnie Duggan, who live six houses away from Ivins's family -- his wife, Diane, and their daughter and son -- recalled that they once asked to borrow his chainsaw to cut down trees along their back fence. Ivins insisted on cutting down the trees for them.

Over the past two years, many who knew him saw the effects of accumulating pressure as the anthrax investigation veered toward him. "He would tell stories about how he would come home and everything he owned would be in piles," said a Fort Detrick employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because workers there had been instructed not to talk with reporters. The employee said his files, lab samples and equipment were frequently seized by authorities.

He was finding it harder and harder to work and was planning to retire in September. But even as his troubles mounted and his mood darkened, "a lot of people cared about him," Byrne said. "He is not Timothy McVeigh. He's not the Unabomber."

Still, by spring, Ivins's life seemed to be falling apart. Police were first called to his house on March 19, when he was discovered unconscious and briefly admitted to a hospital. On July 10, they encountered Ivins again, this time after a counselor called from Fort Detrick to report that the scientist was a danger to himself, and was ranting about weapons and making death threats. He went peacefully with police to Frederick Memorial Hospital, where he was admitted to a psychiatric ward.

He was later released voluntarily, but his erratic behavior prompted his therapist, Jean C. Duley, to seek a protective order. Duley wrote that Ivins "has a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions, plans, threats & actions toward therapists." She quoted his psychiatrist, Dr. David Irwin, as calling him "homicidal, sociopathic, with clear intentions." Irwin could not be reached for comment.

Early Sunday, police were again summoned to Ivins's house and found him unconscious on the bathroom floor. They took him to Frederick Memorial Hospital, where he died two days later.

That same day, the court dismissed Duley's case. A clerk explained the reason in a brief, handwritten note:

"Respondent deceased."

Staff writers Aaron Davis, Amy Goldstein and Josh White and researchers Julie Tate and Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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