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Scientist's Trial Focuses on Money

Thomas Butler of Texas Tech faces 69 counts after reporting deadly bacteria vials missing.

November 08, 2003|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

LUBBOCK, Texas — The trial of a Texas Tech University bubonic plague researcher has focused as much in its first week on a bitter money dispute with the university as on charges that he lied to the FBI and smuggled deadly bacteria.

Defense attorney Charles M. Meadows Jr. characterized the case as an academic "catfight" that ballooned into a federal investigation.

The trial of Dr. Thomas Butler began Monday and is expected to last six weeks. If convicted, the white-haired, 62-year-old scientist could face life in prison and millions of dollars in fines.

The rapidly growing number of scientists trying to find treatments for potential biological weapons agents also has a stake in the outcome of the case, Butler's supporters said. Many view his alleged crimes as little more than the bending of overly bureaucratic rules that may inhibit research on dangerous microbes.

Butler, a leading expert on plague, faces a 69-count federal indictment that stems from his claims in January that 30 vials of plague bacteria had gone missing, possibly stolen, from his lab at Texas Tech. His report led to an intensive but fruitless FBI hunt for the deadly bacteria.

He later signed a statement that the samples had been accidentally destroyed. The FBI characterized his initial claims as a lie. The scientist later recanted the statement, claiming he made it under duress during a prolonged interrogation.

In April, a grand jury delivered a 15-count indictment against him, including charges that he lied to FBI agents and smuggled plague samples from Tanzania, where he was conducting research partly supported by the U.S. government.

He was also accused of breaking federal laws for transporting plague samples from Texas to colleagues at an Army lab in Maryland and to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in Fort Collins, Colo. The indictment included a single charge of tax fraud.

After plea bargaining broke down in August, the government added 54 counts related to what prosecutors called a complex scheme to embezzle $321,000 in research funds.

In court this week, prosecutors described their theory of why Butler allegedly lied to the FBI in January: Texas Tech administrators were "hot on his trails," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert Webster.

The university had already sanctioned Butler for alleged research irregularities, Webster said, barring him from conducting research with human subjects or their blood or tissues. An audit was digging into suspicions that Butler was skimming funds.

As a diversionary tactic, Butler concocted the story about missing samples of plague that he knew all along had been destroyed, Webster said.

Hours of testimony by university police and administrators, and by FBI officers, depicted Butler as inexplicably calm and unworried about the missing vials -- a sign that he was engaged in a ruse, Webster said.

"He did not want law enforcement involved. He merely wanted to throw a monkey wrench in the works of the internal affairs of the Health Sciences Center and its administration," Webster said. "But like someone who starts a bonfire ... [that ] turns into a wildfire that gets out of control, Dr. Butler created the monster."

Prosecutors were dealt a blow before the trial started. The description of Butler as a liar was based largely on FBI polygraph testing, which U.S. District Judge Sam Cummings ruled inadmissible.

Prosecutors have so far worked to depict Butler as secretive about his work and cavalier toward the handling of dangerous organisms. FBI Special Agent Michael Orndorff, chief investigator on the case, described two dozen air bills and other documents suggesting that Butler routinely violated federal rules for shipping dangerous organisms, although in no case had anyone handling the packages become infected.

Under cross-examination, Orndorff said that in nearly all cases Butler had used shipping containers and air bills that had been filled out -- Butler assumed correctly -- in advance by the drug companies he worked with.

Butler's attorney argued that the scientist honestly and properly reported the still mysterious disappearance of his plague samples. E-mail messages shown in court suggested that his movement of plague within this country, and to and from Tanzania, was sanctioned -- tacitly, if not explicitly -- by sponsors or colleagues at the Army, the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC.

The reason for Butler's prosecution, Meadows said, is that "he made the mistake of embarrassing the FBI," when it put into motion a widely publicized search that came up empty.

The outcome will almost certainly have ramifications beyond Lubbock.

Leaders of the National Academies, the nation's preeminent scientific society, have written to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, warning that overzealous prosecution of Butler could backfire, alienating the scientific community.

This week, four Nobel Prize winners in scientific fields decried Butler's treatment. He was shackled in his first court appearance and has been subject to a strict home curfew, among other restrictions. They called for renewed efforts to settle the case out of court.

"We fear that the message sent by this case will intimidate exactly those most involved in bioterrorism-related research," the Nobel winners wrote.

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