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A Trying Time for Science

Bioterrorism-related charges are sending a noted researcher into court for his handling of plague vials. In U.S. labs, the case elicits an outcry.

October 28, 2003|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

LUBBOCK, Texas — Dr. Thomas Butler entered the courthouse in chains.

Clad in a blue prison jumpsuit, the 62-year-old physician shuffled into the building led by armed federal agents, his hands and legs bound.

The image of the white-haired doctor in court has shaken American science to its roots.

Butler -- a well-known researcher of bubonic plague -- is facing a 69-count federal indictment, including charges he smuggled plague bacteria and lied to the FBI.

He is, by all accounts, no terrorist, but a respected scholar who may be the first scientist to face trial on bioterrorism-related charges.

"This case has been chilling," said Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist at Northern Arizona University, and a key consultant to the government on the 2001 anthrax mail attacks. "Every time we do something in the laboratory now, we wonder if we are going to have to be ... worrying about criminal prosecution."

Butler's case stems from a report he made in January that 30 vials of plague bacteria had gone missing from his lab at Texas Tech University. He said he presumed them stolen.

The FBI and the Lubbock Police Department sent 60 investigators to scour the university and town in search of the missing vials. Under intense interrogation, Butler signed a statement that he had actually destroyed the vials and had lied to the FBI about their disappearance.

Since then, Butler has said that he signed only under duress -- pressured by the FBI to reassure the public that there was no danger. He has recanted his confession and pleaded not guilty to all the charges. His trial is scheduled to begin Monday. The prosecution has not indicated its theory for Butler's motivation for allegedly destroying the cultures.

A gag order prevents both sides from discussing the case, but it has sparked an outcry from the usually staid scientific establishment, some of whose members feel they are being threatened by a witch hunt.

"Butler is probably the nation's most eminent expert on the plague [bacterium]," said Peter Agre, the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a former student of Butler's. "Are students going to want to work on tropical medicine if there's a chance they might lose some samples, then be hauled off in the middle of the night?"

Leaders of the National Academies, the nation's preeminent scientific society, wrote to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft in August, warning that prosecution of so respected a scientist could quash initiative by other researchers.

But the government has argued that, in a new era of terrorism, Butler represents a perilous naivete and sloppiness in adhering to restrictions on handling hazardous organisms.

"An incident that could have sparked widespread panic of a bioterrorism threat in west Texas was stopped clean in its tracks," U.S. Atty. Jane J. Boyle said when the indictment was first announced.

The case has disoriented many in Lubbock -- a town of 200,000, where until the Butler case, the biggest news story in recent years was the hiring of Bobby Knight as Texas Tech basketball coach. Lubbock, in the heart of conservative George Bush country, calls itself "the flattest city on Earth" -- a joke about the town's vast, undeveloped tracts of land and featureless horizon.

There is an unfamiliar discomfort in this normally placid town about Butler's case.

"Our neighbors and friends who support him are afraid. People at the university fear for their jobs," said Donald May, a neighbor of Butler's who recently ran for Congress as a Republican. "It's like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia."

Even some supporters of the government's approach see tragedy in Butler's case.

"I was very sad when I saw him walk into the courtroom in shackles," said prosecution consultant Victoria Sutton, director of the Texas Tech Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy.

"It struck me how much the world had changed. When you have a change like that, you're going to have some casualties," she said.

There seems little question that Butler will be among them.

Inside his modest, suburban-style ranch home, his blue-gray eyes showed a cast of fatigue as he sat for only his second extensive interview since his indictment. Attorney fees have already drained his life savings, and Texas Tech has begun proceedings to fire him from his job as head of the university's infectious disease department.

He entered the deadly world of infectious diseases in the 1960s as a medical resident at Johns Hopkins University, which offered a program treating cholera patients in Calcutta.

"Calcutta was a life-changing experience," he said. "The poverty, the crowdedness ... the extremes of the human condition -- what a human being can really endure and survive."

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