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Traffic Court Gets Its Man: Figure in Anthrax Inquiry

The FBI trailed Steven Hatfill, but D.C. police brought him to justice in a $5 pedestrian case.

August 16, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Steven J. Hatfill is guilty, at least according to the District of Columbia traffic bureau.

Hatfill, designated a "person of interest" by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft in the investigation into the October 2001 anthrax attacks, showed up in a Washington traffic court on Friday. The issue: a ticket he received May 17 in connection with an incident involving an FBI agent who had been tailing him and his girlfriend.

Hatfill was cited in the trendy Georgetown section of the city after he approached the agent's parked sport-utility vehicle outside a grocery store and tried to take his picture. The agent, who was videotaping Hatfill, pulled away -- and ran over Hatfill's foot.

Washington police officers responded to the scene and issued Hatfill a $5 ticket, saying he had created a hazard by stepping into traffic outside of a crosswalk. The FBI agent involved wasn't cited.

In a rare public appearance, the former Army biomedical researcher contested the ticket on Friday before a Department of Motor Vehicles hearing officer. He brought two lawyers and a dozen reporters, turning the event into one of the better-attended traffic-court proceedings in recent memory. He did not speak during the proceedings, other than to utter a one-word denial in response to a question from the judge.

At the hearing, the government stuck to its guns. Under questioning from Nick Bravin, a lawyer for Hatfill, the ticketing officer, Clyde Pringle, acknowledged that it was the first time he had ever issued such a ticket to a pedestrian. But he said the circumstances fully justified it.

"The accident wouldn't have happened if Mr. Hatfill had walked on the sidewalk," declared Pringle, a four-year veteran of the city's force.

The officer also acknowledged that although the FBI agent involved had captured the incident on videotape, he didn't obtain a copy for the hearing.

Bravin argued that the tape was "the best evidence" of what happened, and that without it the city could not possibly establish the "clear and convincing evidence" needed to establish that Hatfill was guilty. Bravin also introduced several photographs, including one showing his client's badly bruised foot.

After roughly 15 minutes' deliberation, the hearing examiner, Stephen Lawson, issued his ruling, saying that Hatfill had broken the law the moment he had stepped onto the road. He also ruled that the issue of whether the FBI agent was justified in running over his foot was, essentially, irrelevant.

After the hearing, Thomas Connolly, another lawyer for Hatfill, said the traffic incident was the result of an "unrelenting campaign of harassment" of his client by the FBI. He said Hatfill did not intend to appeal the decision, and that he would pay the $5 ticket.

Interest in Hatfill as a potential suspect in the anthrax attacks stems from his work in the late 1990s at the nation's primary biodefense lab, the Army Medical Research Institutes of Infectious Diseases, at Ft. Detrick, Md. The facility was a repository of the virulent strain of anthrax used in the attacks that killed five people and sickened others in Florida, Washington and New York.

The government has never declared Hatfill a suspect in the case, much less charged him with anything, but federal agents have been following him for about a year.

They have searched his apartment three times, taken his blood, and in June, drained a man-made pond in the Frederick, Md., area where they had discovered over the winter what appeared to be part of a plastic glove box similar to the kind scientists use in lab work. Some investigators have theorized that such a box might have been used to slip deadly anthrax spores into four envelopes linked to the outbreak and sent through the mail.

The dredging operation has turned up a street sign, bottles and a tire, but no signs of anthrax.

Through a spokesman, Hatfill has emphatically denied any involvement in the deadly attacks.

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