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Doctor Tied to Anthrax Probe Ticketed in Incident

May 20, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For Steven J. Hatfill, Saturday was shaping up as pretty routine: He got up, ran some errands, went for a drive with his girlfriend.

Then, according to his spokesman, he got fed up with being followed by the FBI.

Hatfill -- who the Justice Department has designated a "person of interest" in the 2001 anthrax attacks -- had his girlfriend park the car along Wisconsin Avenue in the Georgetown section of Washington, said his friend and spokesman, Patrick Clawson. He got out and approached a sport utility vehicle, driven by an FBI investigator.

He tried to take a picture of the man, who drove off, running over Hatfill's foot, according to a police report. Hatfill was charged with creating a hazard, an offense that carries a $5 fine.

Being in the cross hairs of a federal inquiry can have its perils, and not just traffic-related ones.

Since his name surfaced in connection with the anthrax attacks, Hatfill has lost a lucrative university position, been vilified as a "Nazi" on the Internet and had his apartment searched -- twice -- under the glare of TV cameras.

He is featured in "The Killer Strain," a new book about the U.S. government's anthrax investigation.

Recently, the Washington Post reported that federal investigators had retrieved potentially significant evidence last winter from an ice-covered pond near the government bioweapons facility where Hatfill worked before taking the university job. Yet no charges have been filed in the 19-month-old case. And to outsiders, the FBI seems no closer to solving the mystery of who sent five anthrax-laced letters in the fall of 2001 to government offices and media outlets in Washington, New York and Florida -- killing five and making 13 others ill.

"We have a significant investigation that is ongoing, and we are making progress," an FBI spokeswoman, Debora Weierman, said, declining to comment further. People familiar with the investigation say that about 50 FBI agents have been assigned full time to the anthrax investigation, and that they are working with prosecutors from the U.S. attorney's office here.

Weierman declined to say whether agents have been regularly following Hatfill. In a statement issued Monday, the FBI said it was "aware" of the traffic incident.

"During the incident, Mr. Hatfill fell to the ground on Wisconsin Avenue. Officers of the Metropolitan Police Department responded. Mr. Hatfill received medical treatment and left the scene after he was issued a notice of infraction for walking to create a hazard," the FBI said.

A person answering the telephone at the number Hatfill gave to police declined to comment.

Hatfill, 49, saw his anonymity vanish in June, when he permitted federal investigators to search an apartment he rented in Frederick, Md. A physician and researcher, he once worked as a virologist at the Army's biodefense lab at Ft. Detrick, near Frederick, and was a commentator on bioterrorism issues.

Since June, his life has been put under a microscope -- from his onetime association with the white Rhodesian Army to his unpublished bioterrorism novel, which involves a plot to sicken the president of the United States using a homemade recipe for duplicating the germ that causes bubonic plague.

Hatfill, who fits the original FBI profile of a likely anthrax suspect -- a loner and government insider -- has never been charged with anything.

He vigorously denies any connection to the anthrax attacks. "Steve knows absolutely nothing about the anthrax attacks," said Clawson, a former CNN reporter.

"Steve Hatfill has cooperated 100% with the FBI since Day 1. He has voluntarily allowed them to search his apartment ... to search his books and records ... and to take his blood ....," Clawson said. "All that has happened is the FBI has engaged in a systematic campaign of character assassination."

As for the latest run-in with the FBI, Clawson said Hatfill was attempting to photograph the driver of the SUV to document what he considers to be a campaign of harassment.

Hatfill declined to be transported from the accident scene to a hospital. "He has no money or health insurance, plus he is a doctor," Clawson said. "He just wanted to ... go home."

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