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Clashing portraits of anthrax suspect

Respected scientist, odd eccentric, model citizen, reputed stalker. Bruce E. Ivins was all of these -- and, the FBI says, a killer.

August 10, 2008|Stephen Braun, David Zucchino and Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writers

FREDERICK, MD. — Inside Ft. Detrick's cloistered high-security laboratories, Bruce E. Ivins was regarded as a seasoned researcher and an affable, if slightly odd, colleague. He showed up for work in thrift-store clothes, gobbled down powdered milk and foul-smelling lunches of fish and other foodstuffs layered in jars. Sometimes he abruptly dropped to the floor to juggle balls while lying on his back.

That was "just Bruce," colleagues would say, shaking their heads. It was his endearing qualities that were recalled Saturday at a memorial service for the once-unknown scientist.

But there was another Bruce, one who sometimes lashed out in disjointed hostility. Starting in 1982 and continuing through last year, Ivins obsessively contacted a fellow University of North Carolina graduate student he'd known in the 1970s. The woman was a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, which FBI officials said may have been "linked to location of anthrax mailings" in Princeton, N.J.

The object of Ivins' fixation was Dr. Nancy L. Haigwood, who now directs the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Portland. Haigwood confronted Ivins in 1982 after she found her sorority's initials scrawled in red paint on her fiance's car and the sidewalk and gate of the condominium where she lived.

Ivins denied involvement. But for 25 years after that episode, Haigwood said, he regularly bombarded her with "creepy" letters and then e-mails, asking about her life and referencing details about her family that she had never discussed with him.

Shortly after the anthrax letters were mailed in late 2001, Haigwood said, Ivins included her in a group e-mail bragging about his work with the toxic spores. He sent along photographs of himself working in his Ft. Detrick lab.

"This is someone who thinks he can do anything to anybody at any time," Haigwood said.

The clashing portrayals that emerge of an accomplished biowarfare expert and obsessive oddball chart the downward trajectory of a veteran scientist whose eccentricities seemingly blossomed into madness inside one of the U.S. government's most secure installations.

After his apparent suicide late last month, he was accused of murdering five people with the anthrax bacterium he had spent his life trying to protect people from by developing better vaccines.

On Saturday, several hundred people filled St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Frederick for a memorial service celebrating Ivins' life. Friends, colleagues and family remembered the scientist as a generous and talented man with a keen sense of humor. They spoke about his love of music and Gary Larson's "The Far Side" cartoons, about his enthusiasm for helping others and about his mischievous jokes -- including the remote-control device he kept in his office that made flatulence sounds.

The circumstances of Ivins' death went unmentioned inside St. John.

But outside the spare white and gray house of worship, a cordon of police officers and a phalanx of television cameras acted as silent reminders of the accusations the Justice Department has leveled against Ivins.

The closest acknowledgment of the controversy came from Ivins' younger brother Charles, who ended his remarks by addressing his dead brother directly.

"I'll miss you, buddy," he said. "I'm glad your torment is over."

Ivins' wife and two children did not speak during the memorial. His wife, Diane, her hair cropped short since her husband's death, was composed throughout the ceremony and afterward greeted friends with hugs.

Ivins' son, Andy, 24, was subdued in a dark suit and shook hands with friends at the end of the service. Andy's twin sister, Amanda, wiped away tears and hugged friends, her right wrist in a cast.

The priest leading the music-filled service asked God to forgive "Bruce's sins and failings" and led the congregation in two Bible readings that he said were chosen by Diane Ivins.

One, from St. Paul's letters to the Corinthians, emphasized that only God can judge man. The other was from the story of Job.


Chronicling his decline

Ivins himself provided a ghoulish commentary on his disintegrating inner self. Prescribed a mix of psychotropic medications from 2000 to 2006 for unspecified mental illness, according to FBI documents, Ivins e-mailed an eerie poem to a friend in December 2001: "Hickory dickory Doc! Bruce and this other guy, sitting by some trees, exchanging personalities. It's like having two in one. Actually it's rather fun!"

Last week, one anthrax expert suggested that Ivins' deteriorating mental state after 2000 might have been affected by the annual vaccinations he would have received over his 28-year career to protect against infection by the potent anthrax spores he cultivated. Ironically, much of Ivins' research was aimed at developing a new vaccine.

Meryl Nass, a Maine physician and expert on the anthrax vaccine, said Ivins complained to her in 1998 that he was suffering from a blood disorder he worried might be a side effect of anthrax vaccinations.

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