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The anthrax killings: A troubled mind

Bruce Ivins, who became a respected Army scientist and an authority on the laboratory use of anthrax, had a penchant for vendettas, especially against women.

May 29, 2011|David Willman
  • Bruce Ivins plays the keyboard at a party in 2004. A woman on whom he was fixated -- a Kappa Kappa Gamma sister -- said she found him "cloyingly nice."
Bruce Ivins plays the keyboard at a party in 2004. A woman on whom he was fixated… (U.S. Army Medical Institute…)

He roamed the University of Cincinnati campus with a loaded gun. When his rage overflowed, the brainy microbiology major would open fire inside empty buildings, visualizing a wall clock or other object as a person who had done him wrong.

By the mid-1970s, Bruce Ivins had earned his doctorate and was a promising researcher at the University of North Carolina. By outward appearances, he was a charming eccentric, odd but disarming. Inside, he still smoldered with resentment, and he saw a new outlet for it.

Several years earlier, a Cincinnati student had turned him down for a date. He had projected his anger onto the young woman's sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. There was a Kappa house in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Ivins cased the building. One night when it was empty, he slipped in through a bathroom window and roamed the darkened floors with a penlight.

Upstairs, he found something that fascinated him: a glass-enclosed sheaf of documents, called a cipher, necessary for decoding the sorority's secrets. The cipher would help him wage a personal war against Kappa Kappa Gamma into the sixth decade of his life.

This was the side of himself that Ivins kept carefully hidden. He devised sneaky ways to strike anonymously at people or institutions he imagined had offended him. He harbored murderous fantasies about women who did not reciprocate his overtures. He bought bomb-making ingredients and kept firearms, ammunition and body armor in his basement.

Yet Ivins managed to work his way into the heart of the American biodefense establishment, becoming a respected Army scientist and an authority on the laboratory use of anthrax. When a series of anonymous, anthrax-laced letters killed five people, disrupted mail delivery and briefly paralyzed parts of the federal government in fall 2001, the FBI sought him out for advice.

The anthrax attacks, coming on the heels of Sept. 11, had enduring effects. They deepened fears of terrorism and helped advocates of a U.S. invasion of Iraq make their case to Congress and the public. They prompted an expensive and risky expansion of federally funded biodefense laboratories.

In the anxious weeks and months after the mailings, the nation's defense and law enforcement establishments were consumed with finding out who was responsible. Was it Al Qaeda? Domestic terrorists? Some senior government officials suggested Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein might be to blame.

Investigators believed the poisoned envelopes were deposited in a curbside mailbox in downtown Princeton, N.J. Only years later would the significance of that location become clear.

The mailbox stood beneath the fourth-floor office of a college sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma.


Ivins grew up in Lebanon, Ohio, a small town 30 miles northeast of Cincinnati. His parents had planned the arrivals of their first two children, both sons, but by late 1945 the couple had no desire to add to the family. In conversations with a sister-in-law, Mary Ivins described how she tried to abort the unwanted third pregnancy:

Over and over, she descended a series of steps by bouncing with a thud on her buttocks.

Bruce Ivins, born April 22, 1946, would eventually hear the story himself.

His parents were a study in opposites. Randall, a pharmacist, was unfailingly generous, chatty and averse to confrontation. Mary's prim facade hid a penchant for violence.

"Mom could explode," recalled C.W. Ivins, Bruce's middle brother. "She inflicted terror on all of us."

Randall, the amiable proprietor of Ivins Drugs, would sometimes arrive at work bearing the evidence of her latest eruption.

"One day he came in and he had a black eye," said a former employee, pharmacist Don Hawke. "Of course, she hit him with a broom. He said, 'She missed me the first time.' He was scared to death of her."

On other occasions Mary took a skillet to Randall's head and a fork to his hand.

One night, the phone rang at 2 a.m. at the home of Dr. Ralph Young, a neighbor.

It was Mary: "Ralph, come down here. I've killed Randall."

To Young's surprise, the door was answered by Randall — alive but pressing a garment to his blood-spattered head.

The Ivins' youngest son seemed particularly affected by the family dysfunction.

As a first-grader, Bruce put blindfolds on his teddy bear and other stuffed animals (a precursor, he would say later, to his adult fixation with bondage).

When a 14-year-old classmate, Lana Neeley, arrived at the Ivins house on an errand for her mother, Bruce beckoned her to the basement to "see the gunpowder he'd just made." She vowed never to set foot in the house again.

"He was very intelligent and made sure that everyone around him knew it," said Bob Edens, who passed by the Ivins house regularly, delivering the Dayton Daily News. "He had an inability to become part of the group in a natural way. So he would act out to get attention in weird ways.... He had no sense of normalcy."


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