The murder weapon was a flask. Army scientist Bruce Ivins was the anthrax killer whose mailings took five lives and rattled the nation in...
WASHINGTON — The murder weapon was a flask.
Army scientist Bruce Ivins was the anthrax killer whose mailings took five lives and rattled the nation in 2001, prosecutors asserted Wednesday, alleging he had in his lab a container of the lethal, highly purified spores involved and access to the distinctive envelopes used to mail them.
Making its points against Ivins, a brilliant yet deeply troubled man who committed suicide last week, the government released a stack of documents to support a damning though circumstantial case in the worst bioterror episode in U.S. history. The court documents were a combination of hard DNA evidence, suspicious behavior and, sometimes, outright speculation.
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Ivins’ attorney said the government was “taking a weird guy and convicting him of mass murder” without real evidence. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa called for a congressional investigation.
Ivins had submitted false anthrax samples to the FBI to throw investigators off his trail and was unable to provide “an adequate explanation for his late laboratory work hours” around the time of the attacks, according to the government documents.
Investigators also said he sought to frame unnamed co-workers and had immunized himself against anthrax and yellow fever in early September 2001, several weeks before the first anthrax-laced envelope was received in the mail.
Ivins killed himself last week as investigators closed in, and U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said at a Justice Department news conference, “We regret that we will not have the opportunity to present evidence to the jury.”
The scientist’s attorney, Paul F. Kemp, heatedly dismissed that comment.
“They didn’t talk about one thing that they got as result of all those searches,” he said. “I just don’t think he did it, and I don’t think the evidence exists.”
Taylor conceded the evidence was largely if not wholly circumstantial but insisted it would have been enough to convict.
The prosecutor’s news conference capped a fast-paced series of events in which the government partially lifted its veil of secrecy in the investigation of the poisonings that followed closely after the airliner terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The newly released records depict Ivins as deeply troubled, increasingly so as he confronted the possibility of being charged.
“He said he was not going to face the death penalty, but instead had a plan to kill co-workers and other individuals who had wronged him,” according to one affidavit. In e-mails to colleagues, Ivins described a feeling of dual personalities, the material said.
Officials disclosed Wednesday they had restricted his access to the biological agents last September.
Ivins had sole custody of highly purified anthrax spores with “certain genetic mutations identical” to the poison used in the attacks, according to an affidavit among a stack of documents the government released, all seemingly pointing to his guilt. Investigators also said they had traced back to his lab the type of envelopes used to send the deadly powder through the mails.
The FBI’s investigation had dragged on for years, tarnishing the reputation of the agency in the process. Investigators had long focused on Steven J. Hatfill, whose career as a bioscientist was ruined after then-Attorney General John Ashcroft named him a “person of interest” in 2002. The government recently paid $6 million to settle a lawsuit by Hatfill, who worked in the same lab as Ivins.
Taylor said Wednesday that investigators concluded in 2005 that Hatfill couldn’t have had access to a crucial flask of anthrax spores.
Authorities say language Ivins used in an e-mail days before a second round of anthrax attacks was similar to the messages in anthrax-laced letters received soon after by Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy.
Wednesday’s documents were released as FBI Director Robert Mueller met privately with families of the victims of the attacks to lay out the evidence officials said the agency was preparing to close the case.
As for motive, investigators seemed to offer two possible reasons for the attacks: that the brilliant scientist wanted to bolster support for a vaccine he helped create and that the anti-abortion Catholic targeted two Catholic lawmakers who support abortion rights.
“We are confident that Dr. Ivins was the only person responsible for these attacks,” Taylor told a news conference at the Justice Department.
Noting that Ivins would have been entitled to a presumption of innocence, Taylor nevertheless said prosecutors were confident “we could prove his guilt to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”
More than 200 pages of documents were made public by the FBI, virtually all of them describing the government’s attempts to link Ivins to the crimes.
That’s not enough, said Grassley, the Iowa senator. He said there should be hearings rather than “the selective release of a few documents.”
“This has been one of the largest domestic-terrorism investigations in the FBI’s 100-year history, and the investigative team made mistakes, missteps and false accusations,” he said.
The government material describes at length painstaking scientific efforts to trace the source of the anthrax that was used in the attacks.
It says that, in his lab, Ivins had custody of a flask of anthrax termed “the genetic parent” to the powder involved — a source that investigators say was used to grow spores for the attacks on “at least two separate occasions.”
Anthrax culled from the letters was quickly discovered to be the so-called Ames strain of bacteria, but with genetic mutations that made it distinct. Scientists developed more sophisticated tests for four of those mutations, and concluded that all the samples that matched came from a single batch, code-named RMR-1029, stored at Fort Detrick.
Ivins “has been the sole custodian of RMR-1029 since it was first grown in 1997,” said one affidavit.
Powder from anthrax-laden letters sent to the New York Post and Tom Brokaw of NBC contained a bacterial contaminant not found in the anthrax-containing envelopes mailed to Leahy or Daschle, the affidavit said.
Investigators concluded that “the contaminant must have been introduced during the production of the Post and Brokaw spores,” the affidavit said.
The documents disclosed that authorities searched Ivins’ home on Nov. 2, 2007, taking 22 swabs of vacuum filters and radiators and seizing dozens of items.
According to an affidavit filed by Charles B. Wickersham, a postal inspector, the scientist told an unnamed co-worker “that he had ‘incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times’ and ‘feared that he might not be able to control his behavior.’ “
One FBI document said Ivins “repeatedly named other researchers as possible mailers and claimed that the anthrax used in the attacks resembled that of another researcher” at the same facility.
The name of the other researcher was not disclosed.
The documents painted a picture of Ivins seeking to mislead investigators beginning in 2002, when he allegedly submitted the wrong samples to FBI investigators.