By Anne Hull, Marilyn W. Thompson and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
Bruce's pharmacist father, Princeton graduate T. Randall Ivins, ran the local drugstore, and his mother, Mary Ivins, had a keen intellect and belonged to the Hill History Club. Ivins's parents attended the Presbyterian church and played bridge, but Ivins's older brother, Tom, said there was physical abuse in the house. Their father sometimes slept at the drugstore.
Ivins later said he felt "desolation" in high school, though most remember him as academically gifted if slightly awkward. The 1964 Lebanon High yearbook shows a skinny kid posing with the track team, all elbows and heavy black glasses.
A science standout, Ivins entered the University of Cincinnati in 1964 and earned his bachelor's and advanced degrees in microbiology. At 29, he married Diane Betsch, 20. They headed to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Ivins had postdoctoral work.
"He was a very bright scientist and an awfully nice guy," said Priscilla B. Wyrick, then Ivins's professor at UNC and now the chair of the microbiology department at Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University. Wyrick had belonged to the sorority Chi Omega and remembers Ivins asking her about its rituals. "After about the second time he did it, I told him to buzz off," she said.
But Ivins's interest in another sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, frightened microbiologist Nancy L. Haigwood, a member who knew Ivins at UNC. Both ended up living in Gaithersburg, and one morning, Haigwood came out of the apartment she shared with her boyfriend and found "KKG" spray-painted on their Honda.
"Bruce figured out where I lived and what my fiance's car looked like," said Haigwood, now the director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Beaverton. She filed a police report and later confronted Ivins, who denied it.
By then Ivins was working at USAMRIID at Fort Detrick, in Frederick. He and his wife adopted twins, and Diane Ivins opened a day care at their home. She later led Frederick County Right To Life, participating in antiabortion rallies. The couple attended St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church. They scrimped to buy a $140,000 house across the street from the Army installation. The slender Ivins often rode his bike to work, reminding one colleague of a scarecrow on wheels as he pedaled across the base.A Respected Scientist
Within USAMRIID's high-security laboratories, Ivins was the go-to man for researchers probing anthrax disease. Ivins specialized in spore preparation, taking wet bacteria samples and culturing them in glass flasks. Ivins experimented on mice, rats, golden guinea pigs and monkeys, first injecting the animals with test vaccines and then blasting them with anthrax. After a few days, he counted bodies.
His research earned scientific notice, and the Pentagon awarded him its highest civilian honor in 2002 for helping solve a problem that had delayed production of the anthrax vaccine used to inoculate U.S. troops. The FBI suggested that Ivins's determination to promote the importance of the vaccine may have been a motive in sending the letters.
Ivins also worked to help develop vaccines offering broader protections. Partly through his efforts, the Army secured two patents that could aid in the production of a vaccine then under development. Ivins stood to gain some money from the patent rights, but hardly a financial bonanza.
"This was a guy who drove an older car with bare tires, who wore threadbare clothes. He was not in this for money," said another former supervisor, Jeffrey J. Adamovicz.
Although his work was going well, by 2000 Ivins was seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed for him the anti-depressant Celexa. The drug brought little relief. "I get incredible paranoid delusional thoughts at times, and there's nothing I can do until they go away, either by themselves or with drugs," he wrote in an e-mail.
That summer, Ivins attended weekly therapy sessions at Comprehensive Counseling Associates in Frederick, telling a counselor of his plans to travel out of town to watch a young woman play soccer. If she lost, Ivins said, he would poison her, according to the counselor, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity. "It was not a crime of impulse," the counselor said. "It was planned with cunning." The counselor notified authorities, who said nothing could be done without the intended victim's last name or address.
By mutual agreement, Ivins stopped seeing the counselor, whom he felt he could no longer trust. He cryptically wrote a friend, saying that his counselor "wanted to get me put in jail."
He also was using out-of-town mailboxes to anonymously send gifts and cards to someone in another city. He apparently made an 11-hour round-trip one night to leave a package for that person. When the FBI later questioned him, he explained that he liked taking mindless drives.
Ivins used a variety of names and e-mail addresses -- "jimmyflathead" was one -- and he rented a postal box under the name Carl Scandella. That was the name of Nancy Haigwood's husband -- her boyfriend at the time of the car vandalism.Clues, and Holes, in the Case
The anthrax letters mailed in the fall of 2001 were distinguished by childlike block handwriting that warned: "We have this anthrax. You die now. . . . Death to America. Death to Israel." Though the FBI did not match Ivins's handwriting to that in the letters, agents were struck by phrasing in an e-mail he sent Sept. 26, after the first letters were mailed: "Bin Laden terrorists for sure have anthrax and saran gas" and have "just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans."
Ivins spent several late nights in the lab alone before the mailings. The FBI called the nighttime hours unusual, although his friends said they were not. Ivins later told agents he was merely escaping problems at home. He seemed fine that fall when he enrolled in an American Red Cross disaster-relief course with Peggy Magnanelli, a fellow volunteer who remembered how Ivins later stepped up to help Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
Ivins's professional skills were such that the FBI took him into its confidence as it analyzed the powder contained in a letter to Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). He was kept informed as the bureau began a global quest to identify the distinctive genetic fingerprint of the bacteria packed into the mailings.
Eventually, it all came down to a single flask kept in Ivins's custody. In 1997, he had received anthrax spores prepared at Dugway Proving Ground, an Army test facility in Utah. Ivins cultured the Dugway spores, mixed them with his own and stored the unique concoction in a flask about the size of a half-pint of milk.
He labeled it "Dugway 97," then at some point added the name RMR 1029, which stands for "Reference Material Request." A prosecutor later called it the "murder weapon" in the anthrax case.
The FBI concluded that Ivins was the sole culprit in the mailings, growing the distinctive material in his lab, packing it into pre-stamped envelopes bought in Frederick and secretly driving six hours round-trip to Princeton, N.J., to mail them. Of special note, the bureau said, was the fact that the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority had an office on the same street as the Princeton mailbox.
But the case had holes. No one had spotted Ivins in Princeton, and hair samples taken from the Nassau Street mailbox did not match his DNA. Moreover, Ivins was not the only person with access to RMR 1029. The FBI at first said about 100 people had access, but that number multiplied with the finding that Ivins had kept the flask in two different USAMRIID buildings, each with its own lab technicians and cleaning crews.
The FBI also made the case that Ivins, once so trusted, had tried to deceive investigators. When scientists were asked to give the FBI bacterial samples from their labs, he did not follow protocol. His second sample, the FBI later said, had been doctored.
By then, it was 2007. Ivins had worked without incident among pathogens for five years after the anthrax mailings.
Late last year, the circle was closing around Ivins. In November, the FBI searched his property, with his family sequestered at a hotel. Agents seized a Glock 34, a Glock 27 and a Beretta pistol, as well as directions to the home of a female former co-worker.
The lab revoked his access to pathogens. He kept office hours but was mixing anti-anxiety drugs with sleeping pills and alcohol. Someone alerted a fellow scientist who was in a 12-step recovery program that Ivins needed help. This spring, Ivins did two stints in rehab. His wife visited often.
This year, the FBI met with Ivins three times, documents say, including once in early June as prosecutors prepared to indict him. Out of the blue, Ivins contacted his counselor from 2000 to ask if he could obtain his patient records. The counselor no longer worked at Comprehensive Counseling Associates but said if the records still existed, they would be at the office.
Ivins, who tried to implicate several of his colleagues, e-mailed himself at an oddly named address to say that he was doing his own investigation and "should have been a private eye!"A Pledge of Violence
On July 9, Ivins announced in group therapy that he was a suspect in the anthrax case. He vowed to kill co-workers who had wronged him. The account of this session came from Jean C. Duley, then a clinic addiction specialist. The next morning, Duley called Frederick police and later went to court to get a restraining order.
Ivins was taken into custody and sent to a Sheppard Pratt psychiatric hospital for evaluation. His house was again searched; seized were hundreds of rounds of ammunition, homemade body armor, a bulletproof vest and a handwritten note about Duley. Also found was a copy of "A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines," a novel based on the lives of Alan Turing and Kurt Godel, two towering figures of modern logic. Both men died in bizarre suicides, Godel in Princeton in 1978 from starvation and Turing, a Princeton alumnus, of cyanide poisoning in 1954 after applying the poison to an apple.
The trove of documents released since Ivins's suicide has added to the image seen by his counselors: a madman, driven by obsessions. He tracked members of Kappa Kappa Gamma and showed his command of the sorority's secrets in entries on Wikipedia. He became obsessed with Kathryn Price, a winner of "The Mole" television reality show, and wrote strange e-mails to her under a phony name, Cindy Wood.
"Family and friends deserve to know he had two sides," one of his counselors said. "In all my years of counseling, I never felt scared, except by this person."
But even after his death, the FBI acknowledged that the central forensic evidence in its case against Ivins left room for doubt. "There's always going to be a spore on the grassy knoll," said Vahid Majidi of the bureau's weapons of mass destruction directorate.
Days after his death, Ivins's family and friends prepared for a memorial service that drew so many people to the small Fort Detrick chapel that overflow chairs were hustled in by Army personnel. One weeping colonel after another praised Ivins's devotion to work and family, while co-workers recalled his endearing habits -- such as Tupperware lunches of lima beans and Jell-O.
At Ivins's house nearby, dead leaves covered the small yard where agents had come again to rummage through trash. They found notes Ivins wrote in the psychiatric hospital detailing his anxieties, including his fear of incarceration. They carted away the scraps of paper to log as evidence, passing a wooden shed with peeling paint where they had also searched for clues. The scientist's blue Saturn sat in the driveway, empty.
Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.