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New Evidence Adds Doubt to FBI's Case Against Anthrax Suspect

Microbiologist Bruce Ivins committed suicide after he became the primary suspect in an Anthrax investigation. But did the FBI target the wrong man?

| Tue Oct. 11, 2011 1:37 PM EDT

Did Ivins have a motive?

Growing up in Ohio, the young Bruce Ivins showed an early knack for music and science. But his home life, described as "strange and traumatic" in a damning psychological report released after his death, left scars that wouldn't go away.

The report, written by a longtime FBI consultant and other evaluators with court-approved access to Ivins' psychiatric records, said Ivins was physically abused by a domineering and violent mother and mocked by his father. Ivins developed "the deeply felt sense that he had not been wanted," the authors found, and he learned to cope by hiding his feelings and avoiding confrontation with others.

Ivins attended the University of Cincinnati, staying there until he earned a doctoral degree in microbiology. In his sophomore year, prosecutors say, the socially awkward Ivins had a chance encounter that influenced his life: A fellow student who belonged to the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority spurned him.

For more than 40 years, even as a married man, Ivins was obsessed with KKG, a fixation that he later admitted drove him to multiple crimes. Twice he broke into chapters, once climbing through a window and stealing the sorority's secret code book.

After taking a research job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ivins discovered that a doctoral student, Nancy Haigwood, was a KKG alumnus, and he tried to strike up a friendship. When she kept him at a distance, Ivins turned stalker, swiping her lab book and vandalizing her fiance's car and the fence outside her home. Two decades later, when Haigwood received an FBI appeal for scientists nationwide to help find the anthrax mailer, she instantly thought of Ivins and phoned the FBI. Investigators didn't home in on him for years.

When they did, the mailbox in Princeton, which also was near the home of a former Fort Detrick researcher whom Ivins disliked, loomed large.

"This mailbox wasn't a random mailbox," said Edward Montooth, a recently retired FBI agent who ran the inquiry. "There was significance to it for multiple reasons. And when we spoke to some of the behavioral science folks, they explained to us that everything is done for a reason with the perpetrator. And you may never understand it because you don't think the same way."

Ivins was a complicated, eccentric man. Friends knew him as a practical jokester who juggled beanbags while riding a unicycle, played the organ in church on Sundays and spiced office parties with comical limericks. William Hirt, who befriended Ivins in grad school and was the best man at his wedding, described him as "a very probing, spiritual fellow that wouldn't hurt a fly."

Ivins gained self-esteem and status in his job as an anthrax researcher at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md.

Even so, his fixations wouldn't quit.

He became so obsessed with two of his lab technicians that he sent one of them, Mara Linscott, hundreds of email messages after she left to attend medical school in Buffalo, N.Y. Ivins drove to her home to leave a wedding gift on her doorstep. When she left, he wrote a friend, "it was crushing," and called her "my confidante on everything, my therapist and friend."

Later, after snooping on email messages in which the two technicians discussed him, Ivins told a therapist that he'd schemed to poison Linscott but aborted the plan at the last minute.

USAMRIID was once a secret germ factory for the Pentagon, but the institute's assignment shifted to vaccines and countermeasures after the United States and Soviet Union signed an international treaty banning offensive weapons in 1969. A decade later, a deadly leak from a secret anthrax-making facility in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk made it clear that Moscow was cheating and prompted the United States to renew its defensive measures.

Ivins was among the first to be hired in a push for new vaccines.

By the late 1990s, he was one of USAMRIID's top scientists, but the institute was enmeshed in controversy. Worried that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had made large quantities of anthrax before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, President Bill Clinton had ordered that all military personnel, not just those in war zones, be inoculated with a 1970s-era vaccine. But soldiers complained of ill health from the vaccine, some blaming it for the symptoms called Gulf War Syndrome.

Later, Karl Rove, political adviser to new President George W. Bush, suggested that it was time to stop the vaccinations. Further, a Pentagon directive—although quickly reversed in 2000—had ordered a halt to research on USAMRIID's multiple anthrax-vaccine projects.

Federal prosecutors say these developments devastated Ivins, who'd devoted more than 20 years to anthrax research that was now under attack.

"Dr. Ivins' life's work appeared destined for failure, absent an unexpected event," said the Justice Department's final report on the anthrax investigation, called Amerithrax. Told by a supervisor that he might have to work on other germs, prosecutors say Ivins replied: "I am an anthrax researcher. This is what I do."

Ivins' former bosses at Fort Detrick call that Justice Department characterization wrong. Ivins had little to do with the existing vaccine; rather, he was working to replace it with a better, second-generation version, they say.

In the summer of 2001, Ivins shouldn't have had any worries about his future, said Gerard Andrews, who was then his boss as the head of USAMRIID's Bacteriology Division. "I believe the timeline has been distorted by the FBI," Andrews said. "It's not accurate."

Months earlier, Andrews said, the Pentagon had approved a full year's funding for research on the new vaccine and was mapping out a five-year plan to invest well over $15 million.

Published reports have suggested that Ivins had another motive: greed. He shared patent rights on the new vaccine. If it ever reached the market, after many more years of testing and study, federal rules allowed him to collect up to $150,000 in annual royalties.

If that was his plan, it didn't go well. After the attacks, Congress approved billions of dollars for bio-defense and awarded an $877.5 million contract to VaxGen Inc. to make the new vaccine but scrapped it when the California firm couldn't produce the required 25 million doses within two years.

Ivins received modest royalty payments totaling at least $6,000. He told prosecutors he gave most of the money to others who had worked with him on the project, said Kemp, his defense attorney.

Kemp said prosecutors told him privately that they'd dismissed potential financial returns as a motive. That incentive wasn't cited in the Justice Department's final report.

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