Scientist Being Probed For Anthrax Said To Kill Self

A scientist who studied anthrax weapons for the federal government has committed suicide. Bruce Ivins, who worked at the biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., was being investigated in connection with the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. It has been a day filled with questions about a major new development in the case of the 2001 anthrax attacks. Back then, envelopes full of anthrax killed five people, sickened others and shut down the U.S. postal system. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Some post offices were closed by the attacks, but mail continued to be delivered.]

The immediate news today was of a suicide. As it turns out, the man who killed himself earlier this week was about to be charged for sending the tainted letters.

Prosecutors were going to seek the death penalty for a microbiologist named Bruce Ivins. He studied anthrax vaccines at a biodefense research laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland. On Tuesday, Ivins overdosed on prescription painkillers.

We have several reports now. First, NPR's Ari Shapiro on what we know about the investigation. Hello, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO: Hi, Michele.

NORRIS: What has the government said about this?

SHAPIRO: Virtually nothing, which has made victims furious. All day, they have been getting leaks from the Justice Department, the FBI, government sources, court records, but the government is publicly saying almost nothing. One source told me she had to call the Justice Department herself after she learned in the media about Bruce Ivins. Senator Patrick Leahy, whose office received one of the anthrax envelopes, learned about this from the news media. He had talked with FBI director Robert Mueller very recently, and in that conversation, Mueller said nothing about Bruce Ivins. Leahy had never heard the man's name before.

We have had statements from the lawyer for Bruce Ivins. His name is Paul Kemp. He insisted that Ivins is innocent. He said his client had been cooperating with investigators for the last six years. And he said the relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo was what led to his client's death this week.

NORRIS: Now, is it possible that the government is gun-shy about this because they flagged the wrong the guy a few years ago?

SHAPIRO: Absolutely, that's exactly what's going on here. Steven Hatfill is the man who they initially fingered. Hatfill was innocent. He sued the government, and the government ended up having to pay more than $5 million in settlement to him. So, they're very gun-shy about this, but we're hearing from sources that Bruce Ivins is the man they were convinced carried out these attacks.

NORRIS: Now, as we said, Ivins worked at Fort Detrick in Maryland. How did the government miss him for seven years?

SHAPIRO: Well, they were really focused on Steven Hatfill. And in 2006, when it was clear that Hatfill wasn't the guy, FBI Director Mueller appointed new agents to oversee the investigation. They said, go back, look at every thread we may have missed, every apparent dead end, and see if there's any more there. And it turned out Bruce Ivins had come under scrutiny earlier because of a lab spill that he had not reported, an anthrax leak that he cleaned up without telling anyone. That made them suspicious. It raised some red flags. And as they dug deeper, it turns out he also had some mental health problems that we've been learning more about today.

NORRIS: Tell me a little bit more about that.

SHAPIRO: Well, they were laid out in a restraining order that was issued just a week ago. His mental health counselor, Jean Duley, sought this restraining order, and I'm just going to give you some quotes from what she wrote. She said, client has a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions and plans. His psychiatrist called him homicidal, sociopathic with clear intentions. She wrote, FBI involved, currently under investigation and will be charged with 5 capital murders. And then she said, I have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury August 1, 2008 in Washington, D.C. That's today, and obviously, that testimony did not happen.

NORRIS: Now, just quickly, Ari. Is this the end of the case? Case closed or, well, does this investigation continue?

SHAPIRO: We're expecting more details next week. Officially, the case has not publicly been closed, but that may happen. The folks at the FBI just feel like they can't get a break here. As one former law enforcement official told me today, the FBI always gets their man. He may be dead and it may be seven years late, and they may have gotten the wrong man first, but they always get their man. That's assuming, of course, that this guy was their man.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro. Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: My pleasure.

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Scientist In Anthrax Case Dead Of Apparent Suicide

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.

Correction Aug. 5, 2008

The introduction to this story says the 2001 anthrax attacks "shut down the U.S. postal system." Some post offices were closed by the attacks, but mail continued to be delivered.

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