Death Of Suspect In Anthrax Attacks Called Suicide

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A U.S. scientist suspected in the 2001 anthrax attacks has died in an apparent suicide. The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that Bruce Ivins took an overdose of pain medication hours before he was to be indicted.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

And I'm Deborah Amos in for Steve Inskeep.

A U.S. scientist suspected in the 2001 anthrax attacks died in an apparent suicide. The Los Angeles Times reported this morning that government scientist Bruce Ivins took an overdose of pain medication hours before he was to be indicted for the crime. Five people died in 2001 when anthrax was sent to media organizations and politicians. At the time, Ivins, a microbiologist helped the FBI investigate the anthrax-tainted envelopes.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has been following the story and he joins me now. Good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Deb.

AMOS: Has the Justice Department so far confirmed that it was about to file charges against Ivins?

SHAPIRO: Not publicly. The Justice Department and FBI have both given no comments. But a justice official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case said we can expect an announcement later today. Apparently prosecutors were planning to seek the death penalty in this case which would not be surprising. After all, as you mentioned, this attacks killed five people. They shut down the postal system. It's not an exaggeration to say that they cause mass panic. And so, this was a very serious case that they were, after seven years, about to bring to a close when Bruce Ivins, the man they were going to charge, committed suicide.

AMOS: Well, indeed, seven years. When did they learn about Ivins' involvement and how did they figure it out?

SHAPIRO: Well, he - was flagged early on for failing to report a contamination in his anthrax lab that took place in 2001 and 2002. But then they sort of moved on from that. And it was apparently only in 2006 when this investigation got new leadership. That people went back to leads that they may not have pursued thoroughly enough. In addition, there was a new scientific development that allowed scientists to do a closer examination of the anthrax that was in these envelopes that went to Capitol Hill and to the news offices, and apparently revisiting these leads and doing that scientific analysis led to hone in on Bruce Ivins, the scientist who, you know, in a strange twist had actually studied some of these envelopes that were sent to Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

AMOS: Well, indeed. They thought they had the case wrapped up before.

SHAPIRO: Right. There was this man named Steven Hatfill, you may remember, who was publicly named as a person of interest. He later filed a lawsuit because he was entirely innocent, had nothing to do with the anthrax and said that because of the leak of his name, his life and career were essentially ruined. Apparently, paying him this $5.8 million that the FBI gave him in settlement cleared the way to allow the FBI to pursue Bruce Ivins, to charge him in court, because after publicly exonerating Steven Hatfill, they could then turn their sights on, on this scientist, Mr. Ivins. And that may have been one of the motivations for giving Mr. Hatfill this really large payout of $5.8 million.

But, you know, just to give you a sense of how closely they were holding this, Bruce Ivins' name. Senator Patrick Leahy is one of the senators who received an anthrax mailing. He had been getting private briefings on the investigation. One of his aides told me this morning that Ivins' name never even came up in these briefings.

AMOS: Does this put this case to rest?

SHAPIRO: Well, it is an interesting conclusion to this arc, where right after 9/11, you know, really in the wake of the Twin Towers collapsing, people were afraid of chemical or biological attacks. They suspected this might be al- Qaida. Suddenly, newsrooms including ABC where you work started getting anthrax. People were dying and finally, after seven years - after this having, lying dormant for so long - it seems as though we may in fact have closure in this case that has gone on and on without any real answer.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

AMOS: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro.

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Scientist In Anthrax Case Dead Of Apparent Suicide

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Q&A: Behind The Anthrax Investigations

Who was Bruce Ivins, and why was he a target in the FBI's investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks? Here, a look at the questions surrounding the case.

Timeline: Anthrax Attacks

Read a chronology of who was infected in the anthrax attacks and the FBI's pursuit of the culprit.

Peace Order

Mental health counselor Jean C. Duley requested that the court in Frederick County, Md., issue a type of restraining order against Ivins. Ivins' address has been blacked out to protect his family's privacy.

A senior government scientist who helped investigate the deadly anthrax attacks in 2001 died this week of an apparent suicide amid reports that the Justice Department probe had shifted to him.

Bruce E. Ivins, 62, died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland, according to an obituary in Ivins' hometown newspaper, The Frederick News-Post. The scientist died after taking a massive dose of prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine, according to an unidentified colleague of Ivins' quoted in the Los Angeles Times' Friday editions.

Ivins, who had worked for 18 years at the government's biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md., apparently had been notified that he was to be prosecuted for the deaths connected to the anthrax attacks. Court documents filed in Frederick County, Md., indicated prosecutors may have planned to seek the death penalty.

Ivins' attorney, Paul F. Kemp, said in a statement that his firm had represented the scientist for more than a year.

Kemp maintained that Ivins was innocent and said the pressure of the government investigation led to his client's suicide.

"We assert his innocence in these killings, and would have established that at trial. The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people, as has already been seen in this investigation. In Dr. Ivins' case, it led to his untimely death," Kemp said in a statement.

But there were indications that Ivins was psychologically unstable. Mental health counselor Jean C. Duley requested that the court in Frederick County, Md., issue a "peace order" — a type of restraining order — against Ivins earlier this month.

The Justice Department, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service issued a statement saying sophisticated scientific tools have resulted in "significant developments" in the investigation of the anthrax attacks. However, the release said no details could be provided because of obligations to the victims and a court seal preventing disclosure of some information.

Court documents submitted by Duley indicate Ivins had a long history of "homicidal actions, threats and plans."

Notes attributed to Duley on a copy of the peace order obtained by NPR indicated she had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 1 and that the FBI was going to charge Ivins with five capital murders.

The anthrax was sent through the mail to media organizations and politicians shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, crippling mail service, shutting down a Senate office building and spreading fear of further terrorism. Five people were killed and 17 were sickened by anthrax that was mailed to lawmakers' Capitol Hill offices, television networks in New York and a newspaper office in Florida.

Two postal workers in a Washington mail facility, a New York hospital worker, a Florida photo editor and an elderly Connecticut woman were killed.

Kemp's statement said Ivins had cooperated with the probe for more than six years, using his expertise as a scientist to help the government.

A renowned microbiologist, Ivins had published numerous scholarly works on anthrax. He helped the FBI analyze materials recovered from one of the anthrax-tainted envelopes sent to a U.S. senator's office in Washington, the newspaper said.

Earlier, suspicion centered on another government scientist, Steven Hatfill, who worked in the same Fort Detrick laboratory as Ivins.

In 2002, federal law enforcement officials, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, called Hatfill a "person of interest" in the investigation. A year later, Hatfill sued various Justice Department officials, including Ashcroft. Earlier this year, the Justice Department agreed to pay Hatfill a multimillion-dollar settlement.

Federal investigators began to suspect Ivins in late 2006 after a change in leadership at the FBI prompted a re-examination of the evidence, according to the Times report.

Ivins was facing forced retirement in September, a longtime colleague told the Times. The colleague said Ivins was emotionally fractured by the federal scrutiny.

On July 24, Ivins was released from a facility operated by Sheppard Pratt Health System where he was reportedly being treated for depression.

He is survived by his wife of 33 years and two children.

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