Anthrax Victims' Family Have Questions For FBI

Family members of victims of the anthrax attacks are expected to be briefed soon on why the FBI thinks Army scientist Bruce Ivins mailed the contaminated letters. Relatives says they want to hear why it took so long for the FBI to focus on Ivins.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In 2001, five people were killed by anthrax; more than a dozen were injured. NPR's been speaking with some of the victims and their families. They say they found out about these latest developments the same way most people did - they heard it on the news. And as NPR's Katia Dunn reports, they are skeptical about the FBI's investigation.

KATIA DUNN: Dena Briscoe hasn't heard anything from the FBI in years, even though she's the president of a support group for postal workers injured in the anthrax attacks.

Ms. DENA BRISCOE (President, Brentwood Exposed): We have not gotten any calls from postal management, inspection service, FBI, anybody to give us a heads-up on anything.

DUNN: Briscoe was working in the Brentwood post office in Washington, D.C. in 2001. She says the last contact she had with the FBI was at a five-year memorial her group organized. She has little trust in the organization and wants to see evidence that Bruce Ivins was the man responsible. She's not alone.

Ms. MARTHA MOFFETT (Anthrax Victim): I didn't think it would take them seven years. I thought they were much more capable than this.

DUNN: Martha Moffett is also disappointed in the investigation. She was a librarian at American Media Incorporated at the time of the attack. A good friend of hers, a photo editor, was killed. She assumed the killer would be caught a lot sooner.

At least one family member is trying to remain positive.

Ms. MARY MORRIS: I don't want to have my life defined by the events of 2001.

DUNN: Mary Morris, the widow of a postal worker, is just waiting to see what the FBI says.

Ms. MORRIS: If this is how they chose to do it, it's fine with me. I'm not going to get in an uproar as to how they choose to do it.

DUNN: Director Robert Mueller himself plans to do a briefing this week to show the FBI's commitment to these families.

Katia Dunn, NPR News.

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U.S. Judge Unseals Documents In Anthrax Case

Bruce Ivins, in a high school yearbook photo. i i

hide captionThe 1964 high school yearbook for Bruce Ivins shows an honors student who was involved in a long list of school activities.

Yearbook photo
Bruce Ivins, in a high school yearbook photo.

The 1964 high school yearbook for Bruce Ivins shows an honors student who was involved in a long list of school activities.

Yearbook photo

Federal District Court Judge Royce Lamberth has unsealed court documents in the anthrax case, after prosecutors from the Justice Department went to his chambers Wednesday morning and argued for their release.

The public was not allowed into the hearing, but sources at the courthouse say attorneys asked Lamberth to unseal some of the evidence against microbiologist Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide last week. The FBI believes he killed five people through anthrax mailings in 2001, although his lawyer has maintained his innocence and friends and colleagues don't believe he could have committed the crime.

FBI Director Robert Mueller is expected to brief victims of the attacks, which also sickened 17 people. And the bureau has scheduled a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey told reporters Tuesday that the Justice Department "has a legal and moral obligation to make official statements first to the victims and their families, then the public. And that's the order in which we're going to do it."

After seven years of investigation, the FBI is expected to say that Ivins, a scientist who worked on anthrax vaccines at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., was behind the attacks and worked alone.

This is a big day for the FBI — the first opportunity for investigators to answer publicly just how solid the case against Ivins really is. At this point, it appears the bits of the case that have leaked out are a mix of complicated science and circumstantial evidence.

The fact that Ivins committed suicide last week only complicates the FBI's task. Normally, it builds a case with an eye toward convincing a judge and jury. This time, because Ivins is dead, the strength of the case will be decided in the court of public opinion.

Anthrax Linked To Lab

According to one source who has been briefed on the investigation, Ivins was one of fewer than a dozen people with access to the particular supply of anthrax they now believe was used in the 2001 attacks. In the seven years since the attacks, technology has improved and, sources say, investigators are now able to tie the anthrax bacteria to the Department of Defense lab in Maryland where the scientist worked.

Investigators now believe the anthrax used in the attacks was actually a mixture of spores with slight genetic variations, which gives it a specific signature and, more important, links it almost exclusively to the lab where Ivins worked.

One source familiar with the case against Ivins says the FBI has amassed an exhaustive report of times Ivins entered and left the lab in the days and weeks before the deadly letters were sent. The source says the logs show Ivins using the lab where the anthrax was present at times that could be viewed as suspicious, including late at night when he was there alone.

Ivins also had access to a sophisticated freeze-dryer, which could have been used to turn the wet bacteria into a dry form. Ivins' co-worker Jeff Adamovicz says he remembers the unit, called a lyopholizer, in the hallway and says it was used to dry protein samples for vaccine work. Adamovicz said the dryer was signed out to Ivins. Adamovicz remembers FBI agents testing the dryer, but they never hauled it away, a sign that it most likely came up clean. An additional piece of equipment would also have been required to mill the dried spores into a powdered form.

Cleaning Up A Spill

Ivins regularly worked with one of the more generic strains of anthrax suspected in the attacks, like many people in the lab. Ivins authored dozens of papers relating to vaccine work. He ran into some trouble after he admitted to secretly cleaning up an apparent anthrax spill in or around his office, according to a 2002 Army report investigating anthrax contamination at the lab.

Ivins said he secretly bleached the area in December 2001, but didn't report it because he didn't want to "cry wolf" about a possible spill.

The bleaching took place at the same time FBI investigators first started looking at the lab as a source of the anthrax. At the time, the bureau had its sights set on one of Ivins' colleagues, Steven Hatfill, whom the bureau recently paid nearly $6 million to settle his lawsuit against the FBI and the Justice Department.

One source said there is much about Ivins' personal life that is "messy." Ivins reportedly had a history of alcohol abuse and some difficult family relationships — including one estranged brother who told NPR he isn't sorry Ivins is dead. Bruce Ivins also kept a post office box under an assumed name in Frederick, Md., though the source says it is not related to the anthrax investigation.

That investigation even led to the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. On Tuesday, the group's executive director said investigators had questioned them about any contacts Ivins had had with some of the sorority's chapters and members, dating back more than 30 years.

But the FBI investigation appears, at least so far, to be largely circumstantial. A source who has been briefed on the case says the bureau has been unable to place Ivins in Princeton, N.J., or anywhere near the mailboxes where the letters were mailed at the time they were post-stamped. The source described the case as one based on "access and opportunity," not direct evidence or even eyewitnesses.

FBI investigators tested Ivins' house but were unable to find any trace of the deadly bacterium, a source says. Ivins was also able to keep his top secret security clearance, and, one source says, passed at least one lie detector test in the years since the attacks.

'A Homicidal Plan'

Over the past couple of months the investigation was clearly taking a toll on Ivins. A counselor at a psychiatric center in Frederick sought a restraining order against him, telling the court that Ivins made her fear for her personal safety.

The counselor, Jean Duley, testified that she had known Ivins for six months and said he had been taking part in group therapy sessions on a weekly basis. In one of these counseling sessions, she testified, Ivins was visibly agitated.

"He proceeded to describe to the group a very long and detailed homicidal plan," Duley testified, "that he had bought a bulletproof vest, had obtained a gun, a very detailed plan to kill his co-workers."

Duley testified that Ivins felt he was about to be indicted on five capital murder charges and planned instead to go out in a blaze of glory. She said she got in contact with Ivins' attorneys and ended up getting him committed to a hospital. After he was committed, Duley said, Ivins left her voice mail messages that she found disturbing in which he told her she had ruined his life.

Duley testified that she had been speaking with the FBI and was "scared to death" of Ivins, and she wrote in a court document that a psychiatrist named David Irwin had called him "homicidal, sociopathic, with clear intentions." Irwin's office said he would not comment.

Friends and colleagues of Ivins say Duley's depiction of an angry, violent man doesn't in any way match the person they knew.

And in one of the many strange twists and turns that mark this case, questions have now been raised about Duley's own background.

She has a police record that includes arrests for drug-paraphernalia possession and drunk driving, and in April she pleaded guilty to a drunk driving charge from December. Her defense lawyer in that case, Mary Drawbaugh of Frederick, told NPR that Duley had not made a decision on whether to speak with the media.

Duley has a bachelor's degree in social work and a certificate for drug and alcohol counseling, but that certificate only qualifies her to do limited work under a supervisor and doesn't qualify her to diagnose or treat mental illnesses.

Phone calls to Duley's home have gone unanswered. A man who answered the door this weekend at Duley's home in Williamsport, Md., initially told an NPR reporter that he had no comment, but then said, as the reporter was leaving, "Just so you know, she's a hero."

Under Constant Surveillance

Several sources say Ivins was under constant surveillance, as government SUVs crawled up and down his neighborhood streets. Neighbors would sometimes knock on the SUV doors and ask the occupants what they were doing. One source says the agents would simply reply, "We're on official business." Ivins' coworker Adamovicz told NPR the agents told Ivins' children disturbing things, alluding to the idea that their father was a murderer.

Ivins' 1964 high school yearbook from Lebanon, Ohio, shows a smiling honors student who was involved in a half-dozen school activities including the National Honor Society, current events club, hall monitor, boys' glee club, science fair and even the class play, in which he played the villain.

David Danley, who worked with Ivins at Fort Detrick to develop a new anthrax vaccine for almost 10 years until 2003, says he has a hard time believing Ivins could be the anthrax killer. He remembers a cute gesture he would make to his daughter when they would see Ivins at their church.

"My daughter was involved in a little theater in Frederick," Danley said. "And whenever she was in a musical, she would walk into church, and [Ivins] would be at the piano. And he would start playing a tune from the musical she was in ... just as a quiet sort of hello."

Most people who know Ivins say they are waiting to see the evidence. Officials and people close to the case say the release had been delayed because the FBI has come across new leads just in the past week.

The FBI has also promised victims' families they will be briefed on their investigation first, before the case is made public.

Victims' Families Remain Skeptical

The family members said that after so many years and so many wrong turns, however, they remain skeptical that the FBI has in fact solved the case.

For now, Ivins' family and his co-workers are left wondering and in some cases replaying the past.

Ellen Byrne, a wife of one of his colleagues, remembers talking to Ivins at a party. It was just after the anthrax had been sent through the mail, and after the authorities forwarded the material to USAMRIID, the Army research facility, for analysis. She said he told her he was fascinated by how perfect the powder is.

"He was sitting there," Byrne said. "He was leaning over the table, and I was on the other side of the table. And he leaned forward and was just really excited at how finely milled the powder was."

She said Ivins gestured with his hands like he was trying to weigh it on a scale. He had long fingers, big knuckles.

Ivins excitedly told Byrne: "It couldn't even be weighed — it just hovered," Byrne remembers Ivins saying. "That was the word he used — 'hovered.' "

This story was reported by NPR staffers Dina Temple-Raston, Ari Shapiro, Laura Sullivan, David Kestenbaum, Nell Greenfieldboyce, Allison Keyes, Tom Bowman and Katia Dunn. It was written by Dina Temple-Raston.

Correction Aug. 6, 2008

Some versions of this story included an anecdote from a postal worker in Washington who recalled that her co-workers "found some mail with a strange smell" and that they "all started having tightening of [their] throats." We failed to note that these symptoms are not associated with anthrax.

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