Federal agents investigating the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001 on Thursday searched the home of an Upstate doctor who founded an organization that teaches medical and defense professionals how to respond to biological terrorist attacks.
Dozens of agents, some clothed in protective suits, descended on the home of Kenneth M. Berry in the small town of Wellsville, which sits on the Pennsylvania border, south of Buffalo. Agents searched another home in the beach community of Lavallette on the New Jersey shore. Officials did not identify that house's owner.
A senior Justice Department official, who declined to be identified, played down the significance of the searches. The effort, the official said, was "more about trying to clear the guy than anything else."
A spokeswoman for the FBI, Debra Weierman, confirmed that the searches were related to the agency's investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks, which killed five people and sickened 17. The search warrants are sealed, and FBI officials said there is no risk to public health and safety.
"This is strictly being conducted by the FBI and U.S. postal officials, as the complement of agencies on the Amerithrax task force," Weierman said, adding that the searches would be completed Thursday.
One law enforcement official said agents were "tying up some loose ends" and added: "They're going back and trying to make sure there's nothing there that they missed." Another official said Thursday's searches represented "nothing earth-shattering."
The anthrax case has confounded the FBI for nearly three years. Letters containing the deadly bacteria arrived in the fall of 2001 at news media and government offices, including those of Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) only weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft named bioweapons expert Steven J. Hatfill as a "person of interest" in the case, but no charges have been brought against anyone and there are no named suspects. Hatfill is suing the government over his treatment.
Berry, 48, worked for five years as an emergency room physician in Wellsville before resigning in October 2001. He lists himself as the former president of an organization of emergency physicians.
In 1997, he founded a nonprofit organization, PREEMPT Medical Counter-Terrorism. According to his Web site, the organization trains medical personnel to respond to bioterrorism. On the site, Berry lists himself as a consultant to the Defense Department on the subject of weapons of mass destruction, a claim that could not be confirmed Thursday. Federal law enforcement officials, however, also portrayed Berry as someone with expertise in bioterrorism and anthrax.
Berry did not respond to telephone messages or e-mails sent to him Thursday.
Joseph Pelych, a lawyer who has represented Berry in the past, but not in the anthrax matter, said last night: "I haven't spoken to Dr. Berry in some time. I think at this point it would be premature and speculative that he even needs representation. I just like to caution people not to rush to judgment."
According to the PREEMPT Web site, Berry gave a presentation in June at a biodefense conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, that included substantial information on how to construct bioshields and sensors as a defense against aerosol attacks involving anthrax bacteria, smallpox virus and other pathogens.
In a 1997 interview with USA Today, Berry advocated wide distribution of anthrax vaccine, especially to people living in major cities. He spoke out shortly after the Pentagon announced it would begin inoculating military personnel against anthrax bacteria.
Berry, a graduate of the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine, says on his Web site that he has considerable experience in forensic investigations of aircraft accidents, including the TWA flight 800 crash off New York's Long Island in 1996.
PREEMPT's Web site features praise from former U.S. senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who is quoted as having said in 1997: "Dr. Berry has been one of the leaders within the emergency medical community in recognizing the potential threat of use of weapons of mass destruction against American cities."
An aide to Nunn who spoke with the former senator Thursday said that Nunn probably met Berry at a conference but that "he can't remember specifically."
Eggen reported from Washington. Staff writers Ceci Connolly, Allan Lengel, Thomas E. Ricks and Helen Dewar and researchers Julie Tate and Richard S. Drezen contributed to this report.