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Fort Detrick Scientist in Anthrax Case- Dead of Apparent Suicide

Source: NPR News: David Kestenbaum

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.