Anthrax Suspect Known for Quiet Research, Odd Behavior
Friday, August 1, 2008; 4:32 p.m. ET
Nearly two years after anthrax-spore mailings killed five people and sickened 17 others, Army scientist Bruce E. Ivins accepted the Defense Department's highest honor for civilian performance for helping to resurrect a controversial vaccine that could protect against the deadly bacteria.
At a March 2003 ceremony, Ivins humbly 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.
Now, Ivins, 62, who the state chief medical examiner said died this week by suicide, is being implicated in a crime that has ranked as one of the FBI's biggest unsolved mysteries and most baffling technical cases. The shy, socially awkward anthrax scientist was on the verge of indictment in the anthrax-spore mailings case, according to officials familiar with the investigation, and killed himself with a drug overdose as the FBI ratcheted up the pressure against him.
Among the small circle of scientists who worked with him he was solid, quiet, eccentric, even and a bit nerdy. But he also had a darker side, as suggested by court papers filed last month by Jean C. Duley, who asked a Frederick judge for a protective order against Ivins, saying he had repeatedly threatened her.
"Client has a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions, plans," the woman wrote in note attached to her request for protection. She said Ivins' psychiatrist had confided to her that the scientist was "homicidal, sociopathic with clear intentions." She also noted that she had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury about a capital murder case involving Ivins.
It was a far different Ivins from the one colleagues and neighbors knew.
As a microbiologist at the Army's main lab for studying bioterror agents, Ivins labored for years on the development of anthrax vaccines and had access to various strains of the anthrax bacteria, including the one used in attacks on media outlets and congressional offices in the fall of 2001. Because of his unusual expertise, he was even tapped by federal investigators to help with the technical analysis of the fine, wispy powder used in the attacks.
"He always seemed on the edge -- the kind of guy who might jump through the ceiling if you said 'boo' to him," said former colleague Richard O. Spertzel, who worked with Ivins at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, at the Fort Detrick army base in Frederick. "But he was a well-respected scientist."
Ivins' profile increased after the anthrax mailings in October 2001, when the Fort Detrick labs went into a frenetic response to the crisis, testing suspicious mail and packages virtually around-the-clock. He was part of a response team that analyzed the handwritten letter sent to then-Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), packed with Bacillus anthracis spores that matched the primary strain used in Fort Detrick research and had been used in the U.S. biological weapons program until the 1970s.
At the time, there was concern that the letter had not been securely handled in the labs and that some of the lethal spores might have escaped into the atmosphere. But because workers at Detrick who deal with anthrax are regularly vaccinated, there was no health issue.
In early 2002, without notifying his supervisors, Ivins began sampling suspicious areas in the Detrick lab space that he believed might be contaminated with anthrax. He took unauthorized samples from the laboratory containment areas and later acknowledged to Army officials that this was a violation of protocol.
Ivins tested dozens of samples from a changing room, his own office and a passbox through which anthrax was sent into a secured laboratory. He reported that the passbox contained heavy growth of Ames-strain anthrax, a disease-causing form of the agent that had been found in the Daschle letter. He said he also found it in his personal office.
The men's changing room also tested positive for Ames spores and for another strain used at Detrick, Vollum 1B.
Ivins informed his supervisors of his findings, and more extensive tests were conducted.
Ivins's odd behavior was detailed in an Army investigation of the matter, but his name never surfaced 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.
He also never raised the suspicions of coworkers, many of whom remained convinced that Ivins had nothing to do with the anthrax attack.
"Almost everybody at 'RIID believes that he has absolutely nothing to do with Amerithrax," said a USAMRIID employee, referring to the FBI code name for the investigation. "The FBI has been hounding him mercilessly."
The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation, said the FBI had visited his lab on "numerous" occasions over the last several years, seizing lab samples, records and equipment.
The constant scrutiny "really pushed this poor guy to the edge," the employee said, and noted that his colleagues were upset at the way Ivins had been treated.
Scientist who frequently partnered with Ivins in his research described him as passionate in his quest for better vaccines.
"He really cared," said one colleague who coauthored studies with him. "If he could have developed something to help people, it would have made his day. He was in it because it thought it was important."
The same colleague said Ivins also had an independent streak that sometimes caused conflicts with supervisors. He said the 2002 incident involving the spore sampling in Ivins' officie was typical of his behavior. "He thought the (anthrax) letters might have been mishandled, and as an independent-minded person he was going around looking for things he wasn't supposed to be looking for," the colleague said.
Several scientists who worked with Ivins also question whether he would have had the technical skills to create the sophisticated powder used in the anthrax attack. Creating the kind of highly lethal, easily dispersible powder used in the 2001 attacks requires unique skills not normally associated with vaccine specialists.
"He had no access to dry, powdered anthrax, according to Fort Detrick spokespersons, who said that only liquid anthrax was used at the Fort Detrick facility in animal aerosolization experiments," said Meryl Nass, a physician and bioterrorism expert. "If he had been making dry anthrax, it would have been detectable."
Born in 1946, in Lebanon, Ohio, to the owner of a small pharmacy, Ivins received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees from the University of Cincinnati. He had worked at USAMRIID for 36 years and lived in Frederick in modest, two-story frame house in Frederick where he and his wife, Diane, raised a son and daughter. Friends said he was active as a volunteer for the local American Red Cross chapter and was a musician at St. John's the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Frederick.
His oldest brother, Thomas, said he was short and slight as a child and grew up with a fascination for books and science. "He was like a wuss," he said.
Thomas Ivins said FBI investigators had visited him more than a year ago to ask about his brother. The questions were mostly biographical, related to the family's background and the boys' upbringing. When asked about the purpose of the visit, the agents were vague, he said.
"They said they were investigating science relating to anthrax. That's all they told me," he said.
Staff writers Nelson Hernandez and Josh White and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.