Two Portraits of a Bioterror Suspect
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Two days before he was found unconscious at home, felled by a lethal dose of Tylenol and valium, microbiologist Bruce E. Ivins logged on to one of the "express computers" on the second floor of the library in downtown Frederick.
He typed in the name of a Web site devoted to the anthrax-mailings investigation, a perplexing, unsolved case that had dragged on for seven years. At 7:13 p.m., the computer connected to a page that included comments from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who was confident that the case soon would be solved. "I tell you, we've made great progress in the investigation," he said.
Earlier that day, Ivins had been released from a psychiatric hospital, where the FBI had used the opportunity to obtain a DNA sample from him. Agents assigned to 24-hour surveillance followed him as he returned to his modest Cape Cod house outside the gates of Fort Detrick. Then Ivins "wasn't seen again," FBI documents say, until paramedics carried him out of his home unconscious.
The scientist who had spent his career studying lethal bacteria chose one of the simplest but most painful ways to die: acetaminophen poisoning, which causes liver damage and internal bleeding.
Some details of Ivins's final days emerged last week in a new release of FBI documents. The bureau found no suicide note, as it had hoped, and only sketchy evidence to bolster its case that Ivins was a diabolical and plotting criminal.
The new material emphasized the two irreconcilable versions of the man the FBI blames for the nation's most deadly act of biological terrorism.
The fatal spores used in the 2001 mailings came from a single flask in his custody, the FBI said, and for years Ivins displayed secretive behavior that fit the profile of a murderer who stuffed poison-laced letters into a Princeton, N.J., mailbox. He stalked members of a sorority, sent packages anonymously from out-of-town mailboxes, used false names in bizarre letters and e-mails, and took mysterious nocturnal car trips, sometimes rolling back his odometer.
But Ivins's defenders have cast enough doubt on the FBI's case that key members of Congress are demanding hearings. One recipient of an anthrax-laced letter, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), for the first time has publicly questioned the FBI, especially its conclusion that Ivins acted alone.
Friends say Ivins's psychiatric troubles intensified as the FBI hounded him, showing his children photos of victims and saying, "Your father did this." They knew Ivins as a father who cheered on his son's ball games and as a volunteer who cleaned out the muddied rescue vehicle used when two boys were swept away in a creek. Even in the face of the FBI's revelations -- the guns, the obsessions, the aliases -- Ivins's friends rationalized the details.
"For everything they want to pin on him . . . there is a counter to it, an alternate explanation," said Katie Carr, the former deputy commander at USAMRIID, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, where Ivins worked for 27 years. "There are an awful lot of us in the community that surrounded Bruce who are not satisfied. Please prove it."
Ivins's attorney, Thomas M. DeGonia, likens his client to a diamond held up to the light. Turn it just so, and it could fit the FBI's idea of a sociopath. Turn it another way and see a flawed 62-year-old man. "The obsession with a sorority and the anthrax killings, these are two completely unrelated things," DeGonia said.
Brainy but Quirky
Growing up in Lebanon, Ohio, Ivins was a brainy kid with a quirky personality. A neighbor remembers Ivins inviting him into his garage one day to show off a stick of dynamite he was cutting in half with a surgical instrument. "He kind of grinned, with the scalpel in his hand, with his [other] hand on the dynamite," Robert Surface said.