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Suspect in ’01 Anthrax Attacks Commits Suicide as Prosecutors Close In

Bruce Ivins, a biodefense scientist who spent more than two decades working on anthrax vaccines, apparently committed suicide just as federal prosecutors were set to bring criminal charges against him in the 2001 anthrax attacks, according to a report in Friday’s Los Angeles Times.

Ivins, 62, overdosed on massive quantities of Tylenol mixed with codeine and was pronounced dead at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland, The Los Angles Times reported, citing an associate of Ivins.

Ivins worked as a microbiologist at the government’s prestigious Fort Detrick biodefense laboratories and assisted the FBI in 2001 by analyzing samples of anthrax recovered from envelopes mailed to the Washington, D.C. office of then U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, and to Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democrat from Vermont.

The laboratory was allegedly the center of the government’s investigation into the attacks.

The Los Angeles Times said the Ivins name had not been publicly identified as a suspect but federal investigators had informed Ivins that he would be prosecuted for the attacks. The anthrax attacks occurred shortly after 9/11 and claimed the lives of five people and seriously injured 17 others. The attacks shut down the postal service and government offices for weeks.

Prosecutors were considering whether to seek the death penalty against Ivins, the Washington Post reported.

“The death — without any mention of suicide — was announced to Ivins’ colleagues at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, through a staffwide e-mail,” according to the Los Angeles Times report.

Ivins’ criminal defense attorney, Paul Kemp, said Ivins was depressed.

“The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people, as has already been seen in this investigation,” Kemp said in a statement. “In Dr. Ivins’ case, it led to his untimely death.”

Kemp said Ivins had cooperated with the government probe into the anthrax attacks for the past six years. Ivins retained Kemp’s firm a year ago.

“For more than a year, we have been privileged to represent Dr. Bruce Ivins during the investigation of the anthrax deaths of September and October of 2001,” Kemp said in a statement. “For six years, Dr. Ivins fully cooperated with that investigation, assisting the government in every way that was asked of him. He was a world-renowned and highly decorated scientist who served his country for over 33 years with the Department of the Army. We are saddened by his death, and disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to defend his good name and reputation in a court of law.”

Federal investigators have not disclosed the evidence they have obtained linking Ivins to the attacks. It is unknown whether the Department of Justice intends to release that information will publicly

The Times report said Ivins “had attracted the attention of Army officials because of anthrax contaminations that Ivins failed to report for five months,” the report said. “In sworn oral and written statements to an Army investigator, Ivins said that he had erred by keeping the episodes secret — from December 2001 to late April 2002. He said he had swabbed and bleached more than 20 areas that he suspected were contaminated by a sloppy lab technician.

The Frederick News Post of Maryland reported the incident a few years ago.

“During a two-week period in April four years ago, officials at the Army’s lead biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick discovered anthrax spores had escaped carefully guarded suites into the building’s unprotected areas,” the News Post reported. “The breach called into question the ability of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to keep its deadly agents within laboratory walls seven months after the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the anthrax mailings that autumn.

“The 2002 incident was considered a containment breach because anthrax was found outside a containment suite, which is a group of laboratories and administrative rooms. USAMRIID uses strict security and sterilization methods to prevent the deadly agents stored inside from escaping.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Frederick News Post obtained a 361-page report on the 2002 breach compiled by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, which oversees USAMRIID. The story focused on the anthrax breach, but contained details from the USAMRIID report about Ivins role in isolating the anthrax.

“In December 2001, a USAMRIID technician told Dr. Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist in USAMRIID’s Division of Bacteriology, that she was concerned she was exposed to anthrax spores when handling an anthrax-contaminated letter,” the News Post reported, citing the lengthy government report. “USAMRIID was in the midst of processing tens of thousands of items and environmental samples to rule out anthrax contamination, including the letters mailed to Sens. Daschle and Leahy.

“Dr. Ivins, who still works in the bacteriology division but declined to comment for this story, tested the technician’s desk area that December and found growth that had the earmarks of anthrax. He decontaminated her desk, computer, keypad and monitor, but didn’t notify his superiors…Dr. Ivins told Army investigators he did the unauthorized testing because he was concerned the powder in the anthrax letters and other samples might not be adequately contained.

“He again became suspicious of contamination April 8, 2002, when two researchers reported potential exposures to anthrax after noticing flasks they were working with had leaked anthrax, crusting the outside of the glass tubes. USAMRIID officials found anthrax spores in several rooms within a conainment suite near the potential exposure. Nasal swabs from one scientist involved in the incident tested positive. The scientist had been previously vaccinated and did not contract the disease,” the Frederick News Post reported.

“When the contamination was discovered, Dr. Ivins performed an unauthorized sampling of areas outside containment April 15, according to the USAMRMC report.

Ivins death comes one month after the government paid a nearly $6 million settlement to bioweapons scientist Steven J. Hatfill, named as a “person of interest” in the attacks in 2002 by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, despite the absence of evidence linking Hatfill to the attacks. Hatfill was subjected to round-the-clock surveillance and in 2002 was fired from his job at Louisiana State University biomedical laboratory after the Department of Justice told university officials that grants provided to the university by the DOJ would be revoked if money was used to finance Hatfill’s research.

Additionally, Justice Department officials were suspected of leaking Hatfill’s name to reporters at The New York Times and USA Today who wrote news stories identifying Hatfill as a suspect citing unnamed sources and circumstantial evidence connecting Hatfill to the attacks.

Hatfill sued the Department of Justice and the FBI for ruining his career and invasion of privacy. He also sued reporters at the New York Times and USA Today in an attempt to force the journalists to disclose their sources.

The Los Angeles Times report said the government’s settlement with Hatfill cleared the way for prosecutors to file criminal charges against Ivins.

“Federal investigators moved away from Hatfill — for years the only publicly identified “person of interest” — and ultimately concluded that Ivins was the culprit after FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III changed leadership of the investigation in late 2006.

“The FBI’s new top investigators — Vincent B. Lisi and Edward W. Montooth — instructed agents to reexamine leads or potential suspects that may have received insufficient attention. Moreover, significant progress was made in analyzing genetic properties of the anthrax powder recovered from letters addressed to two senators. The renewed efforts led the FBI back to USAMRIID, where agents first questioned scientists in December 2001, a few weeks after the fatal mailings,” the Times reported.

Ivins published numerous studies on anthrax. Earlier this month, the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy published a study Ivins prepared on the inhalation of anthrax.

Ivins’ extensive work on anthrax vaccines was documented in the book Vaccine A: The Covert Government Experiment That’s Killing Our Soldiers And Why GI’s Are Only The First Victims by Gary Matsumoto.

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