Local filmmaker works on anthrax documentary

Salyer McLaughlin helped produce the National Geographic Channel special "Hunting The Anthrax Killer," which centers on Bruce Ivins, the man the FBI believes is responsible for the anthrax mailings of 2001.

A year after the apparent suicide of Frederick scientist Bruce Ivins, a TV documentary explores the FBI's case against the man the agency blames for the 2001 anthrax mail attacks that killed five people.

"Hunting the Anthrax Killer," showing at 10 p.m. today on the National Geographic Channel, casts doubt on the investigation and the science that led FBI agents to Ivins. The one-hour documentary includes interviews with Ivins' former supervisor at Fort Detrick, Jeff Adamovicz; U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.; Claire M. Fraser-Liggett, director of the Institute for Genome Sciences and professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School in Baltimore; Joseph Michael, one of the scientists employed by the FBI to investigate the case; Ayaad Assaad, a former Fort Detrick scientist briefly investigated before being exonerated; Scott Shane, New York Times journalist; and Paul Kemp, Ivins' attorney.

Frederick filmmaker Salyer McLaughlin served as a production consultant on the project and shot some of the footage of the 2008 Capitol Hill hearings surrounding the investigation, including Sens. Arlen Specter and Patrick Leahy expressing their doubts about the strength of the FBI's case against Ivins. McLaughlin filmed Frederick and Fort Detrick for the documentary, served as the project's still photographer and helped produce the re-created events.

McLaughlin and his wife, Rhonda, own I.D. Films, a locally based digital media production company. The couple said they began researching the case after attending Ivins' funeral last year. Rhonda McLaughlin described Ivins as an acquaintance and family friend.

"Because of that (connection to Ivins), we had a stronger interest in investigating the case," Salyer McLaughlin said. "As well, it happened in our backyard and it's an important story to tell as a filmmaker."

McLaughlin originally teamed with the A&E channel to do a story on the Ivins investigation, but that project was terminated, he said. McLaughlin wasn't pleased with the direction of the A&E project, which he described as more sensationalized and personality-driven.

"National Geographic is more science-oriented, and that's what we wanted to focus on," he said. "We'd heard National Geographic was working on a similar project at that same time, and after the relationship with A&E ended we gave them a call and took everything we had to them."

"Hunting the Anthrax Killer" is produced and directed by Tria Thalman.

Central to the doubts cast on Ivins' guilt is the number of other people, about 100, who the investigators acknowledge had access to the same anthrax strain.

The film also highlights Adamovicz's claims that Ivins did not have the time or access to create the dry weaponized version of the mailed anthrax -- which he said would take 35 weeks of lab work to convert.

The documentary includes examples of mistakes the FBI has acknowledged in the investigation, such as originally focusing on scientist Steven Hatfill.

In the end, the film seemed to posit that the FBI blamed Ivins more because of his history of personal troubles than any airtight scientific evidence.

"Hunting the Anthrax Killer" does not speculate on who might have sent the deadly letters, other than to say that many scientists at several U.S. labs worked with the same strain.

McLaughlin said he is developing a feature film based on the 2003 book "The Killer Strain" by Marilyn W. Thompson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist at The Washington Post.

DETAILS

WHAT: National Geographic's "Hunting the Anthrax Killer"

WHEN: 10 p.m. today

WHERE: National Geographic Channel

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