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Delving into the suspect's state of mind

The government releases evidence that Ivins' mental illness flared around the time of the 2001 mailings.

August 07, 2008|Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Bruce E. Ivins, the bioweapons scientist who apparently killed himself as the government was preparing to indict him in the 2001 anthrax attacks, had a long history of mental illness that flared just before mail contaminated with the fatal spores was received in New York, Florida, Connecticut and Washington, D.C.

Newly released government documents show that in the months before the mailings that led to the deaths of five people and made 17 ill, Ivins -- who had worked at the Army's top biodefense laboratory for 28 years -- told a friend that he had "incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times" and feared that he might not be able to control his behavior.

Details of Ivins' disturbed emotional state, including his possession of firearms and a makeup kit and his obsession with a sorority, were presented Wednesday as the Justice Department explained -- first to those directly affected by the anthrax attacks, then to the public at large -- the government's case against him.

The revelations have sparked questions at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill about how someone known to have such disturbed thoughts was still allowed access to the government's infectious-disease laboratories at Ft. Detrick, Md., where anthrax and other deadly plagues were studied in classified projects. Ivins' apparent suicide from an overdose of acetaminophen occurred just as prosecutors were readying murder charges against him.

In the last several days, the public learned of Ivins' recent threats toward a therapist and others he thought had wronged him. But those outbursts occurred after he was informed that he was a suspect in the case and had been barred from the top-secret labs.

The information released Wednesday showed a much longer history of emotional turbulence within a man whose outward veneer of respectability was enhanced by the government awards he had received for his research. The documents provided detailed evidence showing that Ivins' mental illness flared about the time of the 2001 anthrax mailings.

According to U.S. Atty. Jeffrey A. Taylor, "Dr. Ivins had a history of mental health problems and was facing a difficult time professionally in the summer and fall of 2001" -- in part because an anthrax vaccine he was working on was failing.

Ivins' problems before and around the time of the mailings -- including strange physical symptoms and treatment with Celexa, an antidepressant -- were detailed in e-mails and other documents released to reporters after they were unsealed by a federal judge.

On June 27, 2000, Ivins wrote in an e-mail to a friend: "Even with the Celexa and the counseling, the depression episodes still come and go. That's unpleasant enough. What is REALLY scary is the paranoia."

A week later, on July 4, he wrote to his friend that his psychiatrist and his counselor now thought that his symptoms "may not be those of depression or bipolar disorder, they may be that of a 'paranoid personality disorder.' "

That Aug. 12, he wrote about what he called one of his "worst days in months."

"I wish I could control the thoughts in my mind. It's hard enough sometimes controlling my behavior. When I'm being eaten alive inside, I always try to put on a good front here at work and at home, so I don't spread the pestilence. . . ." he wrote. "I get incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times, and there's nothing I can do until they go away, either by themselves or with drugs."

In one e-mail he acknowledged, "Sometimes I think that it's all just too much."

The first deadly mailings -- anthrax-laced letters sent to news media in New York and Florida -- were postmarked Sept. 18, 2001, a week after Islamic terrorists hijacked four passenger jets and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. A second batch of letters was sent that Oct. 9. After sophisticated tests were developed to identify the genetic material of anthrax spores, investigators used it in 2005 to trace the particular blend of spores recovered from the letters back to Ivins, then set about building a case against him.

The letters -- which mentioned Allah and called for the destruction of Israel and the United States -- forced the closing of a Senate office building, a newspaper headquarters and a large postal facility, and they made the entire nation, already on edge from the Sept. 11 attacks, fearful that foreign terrorists were now targeting the U.S. with a deadly microbe.

On Oct. 16, 2001, one of Ivins' co-workers communicated to a former colleague that "Bruce has been an absolute manic basket case the last few days."

From 2000 through 2006, Ivins was prescribed "various psychotropic medications including antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety for his mental issues," the documents showed.

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