Unique an­thrax mix led to Ivins

But oth­ers still say the ev­i­dence was largely cir­cum­stan­tial


Fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors cinched their case against al­leged an­thrax mailer Bruce Ivins af­ter so­phis­ti­cated ge­netic tests by a Cal­i­for­nia com­pany helped them trace a sig­na­ture mix­ture of an­thrax spores, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple familiar with the ev­i­dence.

Well be­fore the deadly 2001 an­thrax mail­ings, Dr. Ivins, through his work as a gov­ern­ment sci­en­tist, had com­bined an­thrax spores ob­tained from at least one out­side lab­o­ra­tory.

With the help of lead­ing out­side ge­neti­cists and a fresh look at the ev­i­dence by a new team of in­ves­ti­ga­tors, the FBI con­cluded in re­cent months that only Dr. Ivins could rea­son­ably have per­pe­trated the crimes.

How­ever, an­other per­son who had been briefed on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion told The New York Times that the ev­i­dence was largely cir­cum­stan­tial, and a grand jury in Wash­ing­ton was plan­ning to hear sev­eral more weeks of tes­ti­mony.

While ge­netic anal­y­sis had linked the an­thrax to Dr. Ivins’ lab, at least 10 peo­ple had ac­cess to the flask con­tain­ing

that an­thrax, said the source, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

FBI agents also have no ev­i­dence prov­ing that Dr. Ivins vis­ited New Jer­sey on the dates in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber 2001 when in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieve the let­ters were sent from a Prince­ton mail­box, the source said.

Dr. Ivins, 62, a se­nior mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist at the gov­ern­ment’s biode­fense-re­search in­sti­tute at Fort Det­rick, Md., died last Tues­day in an ap­par­ent sui­cide as fed­eral prose­cu­tors pre­pared to bring mur­der charges against him.

Records re­viewed by the Los An­ge­les Times and in­ter­views with peo­ple knowl­edge­able about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion pro­vide new de­tails about the ev­i­dence. Since 1980, Dr. Ivins spe­cial­ized in de­vel­op­ing vac­cines against an­thrax and other bi­o­log­i­cal weapons. He ex­per­i­mented with an­i­mals, in­clud­ing mon­keys, rabbits and guinea pigs.

Dr. Ivins mixed the spores shipped to Fort Det­rick from the Army’s Dug­way Prov­ing Ground in Utah, a fa­cil­ity op­er­ated by the Bat­telle Me­mo­rial In­sti­tute in Ohio, a private con­trac­tor per­form­ing top-se­cret work for the CIA and other agen­cies.

By cross-ref­er­enc­ing the dates when those spores were re­ceived and han­dled at Fort Det­rick, the FBI sharply nar­rowed the list of gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees with pos­si­ble ac­cess to the ma­te­rial.

In­stead of try­ing to trace an­thrax that could have come from per­haps dozens of sources, in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­came con­vinced that it had to have orig­i­nated at the U.S. Army Med­i­cal Re­search In­sti­tute of In­fec­tious Dis­eases (USAMRIID), lo­cated within Fort Det­rick, about 50 miles north of Wash­ing­ton.

“Now, all of a sud­den, you can put a time frame on this ma­te­rial,” said one of those per­sons familiar with the ev­i­dence. “By mix­ing the ma­te­rial from the sep­a­rate in­sti­tu­tions, (Dr. Ivins) pro­vided what be­came a sig­na­ture.”

With new analy­ses show­ing that the an­thrax could not have come from any­where but Fort Det­rick, FBI agents plunged deep into Dr. Ivins’ his­tory.

It was a sig­nif­i­cant change of di­rec­tion. Im­me­di­ately af­ter the 2001 mail­ings, FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tors turned to Dr. Ivins and his Fort Det­rick col­leagues to help them with ini­tial analy­ses of the an­thrax sam­ples they had re­cov­ered.

As the in­ves­ti­ga­tion dragged on, au­thor­i­ties later en­listed J. Craig Ven­ter, founder of a Rockville, Md., in­sti­tute that had helped map the hu­man genome. Based on analy­ses per­formed at The In­sti­tute for Ge­nomic Re­search, Dr. Ven­ter said “it al­most had to be a gov­ern­ment sci­en­tist.” The in­sti­tute’s anal­y­sis was com­pleted un­der con­tract to the FBI and the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases.

He re­called fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­triev­ing the an­thrax ev­i­dence from the in­sti­tute.

“FBI came in and took freez- ers and all the sam­ples,” Dr. Ven­ter said in an in­ter­view Sun­day.

Ibis Bio­sciences, a com­pany in Carls­bad, Calif., per­formed some of the most re­cent an­thrax anal­y­sis. The com­pany tells its clients, in­clud­ing the FBI, that its high-res­o­lu­tion an­thrax geno­typ­ing kit pro­vides analy­ses more ad­vanced than any other tech­nol­ogy world­wide.

In fact, the com­pany’s test re­sults buoyed FBI and Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cials.

“Their ca­pa­bil­ity is very so­phis­ti­cated; it is faster and more el­e­gant than what had been avail­able,” said Ran­dall Murch, a for­mer FBI sci­en­tist who ear­lier served as an out­side con­sul­tant for the an­thrax in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Dr. Ivins’ gov­ern­ment work with the sep­a­rate batches of dry pow­der an­thrax was not widely known at USAMRIID. Two for­mer of­fi­cials noted that USAMRIID typ­i­cally sup­plies live an­thrax spores for use at the two out­side fa­cil­i­ties, not the other way around. As part of his gov­ern­ment job, Dr. Ivins, a mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist, grew spores used for ex­per­i­ments, called “chal­lenges,” on mon­keys, rabbits and other an­i­mals at USAMRIID. The foren­sic anal­y­sis of the an­thrax sent in the mail­ings had long posed a chal­lenge to the FBI, whose in-house sci­en­tists were not equipped to de­ci­pher the po­ten­tial ori­gin of the ma­te­rial. Six years ago, Dr. Ivins ac­knowl­edged to an Army in­ves­ti­ga­tor his use of “Ames strain” an­thrax spores ob­tained from Dug­way.

The FBI on Sun­day re­fused to com­ment on how it had fo­cused on Dr. Ivins.

“As soon as the le­gal con­straints bar­ring dis­clo­sure are re­moved, we will make pub­lic as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble,” said FBI as­sis­tant di­rec­tor John Miller.

Dr. Bruce Ivins, 62, an Army sci­en­tist, ap­par­ently com­mit­ted sui­cide last week. He was likely to be charged in the 2001 an­thrax at­tacks.

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