New Details Show Anthrax Suspect Away On Key Day
Friday, August 8, 2008
Anthrax attack suspect Bruce E. Ivins took several hours of administrative leave from his Fort Detrick, Md., laboratory on a critical day in September 2001 when the first batch of deadly letters was dropped in a New Jersey mailbox, government sources briefed on the case said yesterday.
The gap recorded on his time sheet offered investigators a key clue into how he could have pulled off an elaborate crime that involved carrying letters packed with lethal powder to a distant location for mailing, the sources said.
But the information was not included in documents released Wednesday by the Justice Department to support FBI suspicions that Ivins, acting on his own, pulled off the worst bioterrorism attack in U.S. history.
Yesterday, as experts began picking apart the government's largely circumstantial case, new facts emerged about omissions in the investigation and evidence that could not be pinned to Ivins in about 18 months of intense focus. Critics cited unresolved questions, such as why Ivins was never spotted in Princeton and how the bureau could say with such certainty that he had sole custody of the anthrax bacteria believed to be used in the attacks.
Meanwhile, bits of fresh information continued to come out. A partial log of Ivins's work hours shows that he worked late in the lab on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 16, signing out at 9:52 p.m. after two hours and 15 minutes. The next morning, the sources said, he showed up as usual but stayed only briefly before taking leave hours. Authorities assume that he drove to Princeton immediately after that, dropping the letters in a mailbox on a well-traveled street across from the university campus. Ivins would have had to have left quickly to return for an appointment in the early evening, about 4 or 5 p.m.
Ivins also had ample time to return to the same Nassau Street mailbox the following month, over the Columbus Day weekend, when a second group of letters was sent to Senate offices and media organizations, the sources said, offering new information that they said underscored Ivins's opportunity to commit the crime.
Federal agents did not interview owners of shops on the street where the mailbox is located to place Ivins at the scene, judging that any witness identification would have been inherently unreliable after nearly seven years. Nor did they uncover tollbooth footage or credit card or phone records that would directly link Ivins to the day's events.
Ivins will never see the inside of a federal courtroom. He died July 29 of a Tylenol overdose shortly after investigators signaled that they would pursue his indictment on murder charges for the deaths of five people and the sickening of 17 more in the 2001 attacks.
Defense attorney Paul F. Kemp continued to profess Ivins's innocence and said his client would have been vindicated by a jury. "It's just a bunch of speculation and no evidence," Kemp said yesterday. "What's the evidence that he did anything, other than know how to make anthrax and have all kinds of it at his disposal?"
In response, FBI Assistant Director John Miller warned against drawing conclusions without understanding the science and circumstantial evidence. "There are a lot of armchair detectives and instant experts out there formulating opinions not based on a full set of the facts. . . . The only airtight cases in life are on 'CSI' in prime time."
Outside defense lawyers and former prosecutors said authorities would have faced a challenge convicting Ivins based on the official documents released Wednesday. Some of the most persistent questions involved the science used by the FBI to make its case. Bioweapons experts said they were unimpressed by the government's description of the DNA link between the anthrax in the letters and spores in a flask in Ivins's lab.
"There is not enough scientific information to make an evaluation of the science the FBI used in this investigation," said Tara O'Toole, who heads the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh.