Just as the Department of Justice readied its prosecution of a top biodefense scientist at USARMID in the anthrax mail attacks from 2001, their suspect committed suicide. Bruce Ivins, who worked at the same laboratory as the exonerated Steven Hatfill, took a massive dose of the prescription Tylenol/codeine medication on Tuesday:
A top government scientist who helped the FBI analyze samples from the 2001 anthrax attacks has died in Maryland from an apparent suicide, just as the Justice Department was about to file criminal charges against him for the attacks, the Los Angeles Times has learned.
Bruce E. Ivins, 62, who for the last 18 years worked at the government’s elite biodefense research laboratories at Ft. Detrick, Md., had been informed of his impending prosecution, said people familiar with Ivins, his suspicious death and the FBI investigation. …
The anthrax mailings killed five people, crippled national mail service, shut down a Senate office building and spread fear of further terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The extraordinary turn of events followed the government’s payment in June of a settlement valued at $5.82 million to a former government scientist, Steven J. Hatfill, who was long targeted as the FBI’s chief suspect despite a lack of any evidence that he had ever possessed anthrax.
The payout to Hatfill, a highly unusual development that all but exonerated him in the mailings, was an essential step to clear the way for prosecuting Ivins, according to lawyers familiar with the matter.
If you have never heard of Bruce Ivins, there’s a good reason. The FBI took a lot more care with their investigation after ruining Hatfill’s name. They had their witnesses sign confidentiality agreements to keep from leaking the information to the media. The FBI did not want a repeat of their disastrous run at Hatfill, which both embarrassed the agency and sent the investigation into a years-long dead end.
However, they knew they had the right source for the anthrax. Genetic testing determined that the spores could only have come from USARMID, where the nation’s best biodefense scientists work to negate such attacks. Ivins became a suspect early, within months of the first attack, when he claimed to have cleaned up a lab contamination without informing his superiors — and without testing again to ensure that the area was clear. Ivins lived about 200 miles from the New Jersey mailbox where the letters were first posted. However, for some reason the FBI failed to follow up on Ivins until just recently.
The suicide probably speaks for itself. Unfortunately, the US will not get its day in court with the man who allegedly murdered five people and frightened a nation already reeling from the 9/11 attack. The letters attack Congress — really, the staffers and mail handlers who work for Congress — as well as the media. At the very least, we deserved to hear Ivins’ defense, and if convicted, a reason why.