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U.S. closes case on anthrax letters

The inquiry concludes that researcher Bruce E. Ivins, who died in 2008 in an apparent suicide, was solely responsible for the 2001 attacks.

February 20, 2010|By Richard A. Serrano
  • Bruce E. Ivins probably would have faced charges had he not died in 2008.
Bruce E. Ivins probably would have faced charges had he not died in 2008. (Sam Yu / Frederick (Md.)…)

Reporting from Washington — The FBI and Justice Department on Friday officially closed their investigation into the 2001 mailings of anthrax-contaminated letters to Capitol Hill and journalists in New York and Florida, concluding that U.S. Army medical researcher Bruce E. Ivins was solely responsible for the five deaths that resulted.

Had Ivins not died in an apparent suicide in July 2008 as investigators were closing in on him, he would probably have been charged with the use of a weapon of mass destruction, authorities said in their report.

The announcement of the end of the case was accompanied by the release of voluminous supporting documents, including thousands of pages of summaries, e-mails, search warrants and other evidentiary material.

The FBI, working with postal inspectors and federal prosecutors, said Ivins had plenty of opportunities to create and maintain the spore batches of anthrax, noting that he often worked late at night alone in the lab at Ft. Detrick, Md., where the material was stored, grown and harvested.

"In addition," the report says, "Dr. Ivins was among the very few anthrax researchers nationwide with the knowledge and ability to create the highly purified spores used in the mailings." His motive, it says, was born out of "intense personal and professional pressure."

He had devoted his entire 20-year career to the anthrax vaccine program and feared that the project was being phased out. "Following the anthrax attacks, however, his program was suddenly rejuvenated," authorities said.

Ivins' lawyer, Paul Kemp, ridiculed the government findings.

"There's absolutely no evidence he did anything," Kemp said. Rep. Rush D. Holt, a Democrat from central New Jersey where the anthrax letters were mailed, also was not satisfied.

"This has been a closed-minded, closed process from the beginning," he said. "The evidence the FBI produced would not, I think, stand up in court."

According to the 92-page summary of the investigation, Ivins struggled with mental health issues. In the month before he died of an overdose of Tylenol, he posted violent messages on the Internet and leveled death threats at a group therapy session. His doctors considered him "homicidal and sociopathic." He also told a friend how he felt pressured by the FBI investigation, and how things were happening that he had no control over, but that "I don't have it in my, in my, I, I can tell you I don't have it in my heart to kill anybody."

Just months earlier he had tried to commit suicide at home in Frederick, Md. He had been taking antidepressants. He collected guns and body armor. Sometimes he wrote in code, fascinated with constructions like TTT and AAT and TAT, similar to the bold-face letters on the anthrax mailings, apparent references to a chain of nucleic acids in the DNA genetic chain.

The federal investigation was not without its missteps and false turns. Officials spent the first years running down suspicions that the mailings were the work of Al Qaeda.

They devoted blocks of time and resources investigating Steven J. Hatfill, a former researcher at Ft. Detrick, ultimately clearing him.

No physical evidence was found linking Ivins to the mailbox at Princeton University in New Jersey where the anthrax letters were posted.

However, the report says, "strong circumstantial links . . . were established." The mailbox is near the offices of the school's Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, which Ivins reportedly had obsessed over.

Kemp said the connection was preposterous. "I drove up there to see how long it would take me, and what was there," he said. "It's a mail drop for people interested in that sorority. Just a business drop. There were no girls there."

richard.serrano@ latimes.com

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