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FBI Drains Pond in Hunt for Evidence in Anthrax Case

June 10, 2003|Justin Gest | Times Staff Writer

FREDERICK, Md. -- FBI agents on Monday began to drain a pond that they suspect contains discarded evidence connected to their ongoing investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks, after investigators found laboratory supplies submerged there.

The FBI's Washington field office said in a statement that agents were "conducting forensic searches" in the area, in the northwestern corner of Frederick Municipal Forest -- a lush, hilly and remote region with numerous creeks and reservoirs.

The pond is about eight miles from the former home of Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, a onetime researcher at the nearby Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Hatfill, a physician and bioterrorism expert, has been described by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft as "a person of interest" in connection with the attacks, which killed five people and made 17 others ill.

In the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, letters laced with anthrax spores were mailed to media outlets in Florida and New York and to the offices of Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

The Washington Post reported in May that FBI divers searching the pond in December and January discovered a clear plastic box with holes that could accommodate gloves, along with glass vials and gloves.

Investigators say submerging the letters and lethal bacteria in an airtight box underwater would naturally suppress the dispersal of airborne anthrax spores, protecting the killer. However, there have also been suggestions that the killer could just as easily have discarded the materials after carefully packing the envelopes on land.

One of 19 ponds surrounding a larger reservoir in the Frederick County watershed, Whiskey Springs Pond covers about an acre and is about 9 feet deep, area residents said.

A source familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while it should take only two or three days to complete the draining, sifting through the silt and mud at the bottom could require two to three weeks.

The government has hired the Knoxville, Tenn.-based contracting firm of Phillips and Jordan Inc. to drain it.

The Post reported that the FBI's interest in the pond was sparked in December after a former business acquaintance told agents that Hatfill had once described how he might dispose of contaminated materials. Dozens of investigators -- including divers with ice-cutters to break through the pond's frozen surface -- began searching the area.

Since then, agents have kept Hatfill under 24-hour surveillance. Hatfill, through a spokesman, has insisted that he had no involvement in the attacks.

Area residents said that when the agents arrived last winter, they went door to door, asking the neighbors to call authorities if they saw anything suspicious. Agents searched the area daily for more than four weeks, residents said, and they have kept it under surveillance.

The decision to drain the small pond follows reports that tests on the recovered lab materials for anthrax spores were inconclusive.

Frederick resident Ann M. Bailey, 56, said officers told her that the delay in draining the pond was in anticipation of approval from the Environmental Protection Agency and Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty.

The EPA and the mayor's office declined to comment.

However, the source familiar with the investigation said, "They may have been waiting for good weather, but they also have a company doing the pumping so maybe they had to wait for the company.... There's been a lot of debate going back and forth whether they should be doing it or not."

On May 30, the Post reported that some agents feared that a public draining of the pond could offer no clues and be embarrassing.

Times researcher Christopher Chandler in Washington contributed to this report.

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