Microbiologist and anthrax terror suspect Bruce Edward Ivins is still receiving patents for his scientific work nearly five years after his death.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services received a patent for a method to treat or prevent infection caused by a bioterrorism agent to a group of people that included Ivins on July 9.
Monday marks the five-year anniversary of the scientist's death. Ivins died July 29, 2008, at Frederick Memorial Hospital, two days after his wife, Diane, found him unconscious on the bathroom floor of the family's home across the street from Fort Detrick, where he worked for more than 25 years as a scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. He died of an overdose of acetaminophen.
Diane Ivins declined to be interviewed for this story. She has never spoken publicly about the case.
In the days after his death, the Federal Bureau of Investigation named Ivins the person responsible for the 2001 anthrax attacks that claimed five lives and sickened 17 others. Five years later, questions remain about whether the man who volunteered for the American Red Cross was capable of such carnage.
Ivins' death came as the federal government prepared to name him as its suspect in the anthrax case; a curious twist for a man who had devoted much of his career to researching anthrax, and who himself had assisted the bureau in the initial days after letters filled with spores arrived at media outlets and the offices of Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy.
The appearance of the letters in the weeks after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, served to worsen the unease many Americans were already feeling in the aftermath. The case would become one of the longest and most expensive in the FBI's history, going so far as to lead to the draining of a Frederick pond as the bureau sought clues about a possible underground lab.
Jeffrey Adamovicz worked at USAMRIID for 12 years and supervised Ivins from 2003 through 2004. Ivins was a man with nervous energy, a thorough researcher known for quirky poems, Adamovicz said.
“Memories are selective, I suppose, but I remember mainly good things,” said Adamovicz, now at the University of Wyoming.
Initially, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft named former USAMRIID scientist Steven Hatfill a “person of interest” in 2002. When the case against Hatfill unraveled, the FBI found Ivins an easy scapegoat, Adamovicz said. He said the bureau focused on circumstantial evidence that included personal details about the scientist's peculiarities and fixations.
Ivins' only guilt was “being one custodian of this flask,” Adamovicz said, referring to USAMRIID's RMR-1049 labeled flask that the FBI said contained the source material. Over the years, dozens of other researchers had access to the flask and spores from it had been shared with other labs, he said.
“This is politics at its most disgusting,” Adamovicz said.
Lawmakers' intrusion in the labs and layers of bureaucratic red tape intended to increase safety and security in the aftermath of the attacks made the working environment at the Fort Detrick lab unpalatable for Adamovicz. He left USAMRIID in late 2007.
USAMRIID added biosurety and security measures in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax mailings, but those changes were made for a variety of reasons, including the need to focus on national security and are not a direct result of the Amerithrax case alone, officials have said.
“USAMRIID personnel participated fully on the Amerithrax investigation but the Institute has no comment on the outcome or conclusion of the investigatory authorities,” spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden said. “While questions may remain, USAMRIID must continue to focus on its research mission and leave the speculation to others.”
Priscilla Wyrick hired Ivins as a postgraduate researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the 1970s. While there, Ivins exhibited an obsession about the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, Wyrick said. Other than telling him to knock it off, she found no red flags about what was to come years later, she said.
“The Bruce I knew at that time was sort of goody two-shoes,” Wyrick said.
Wyrick, who lives in North Carolina, struggles with the question of whether the bright, eager man who trained under her could have been responsible. In the months after the attacks, Ivins came to East Tennessee State University, where Wyrick was working at the time, to give a talk about anthrax. Ivins told her not to ask any questions about the investigation, but that was standard, Wyrick said
During his time at UNC that Ivins began to bother Nancy Haigwood, a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. Haigwood would eventually come forward in response to an appeal for help by investigators to the American Society for Microbiology in December 2001. Haigwood said an email that Ivins sent to colleagues with a picture of himself handling anthrax without gloves was unusual and “very odd behavior for a scientist.” Ivins' unusual behavior and his email led her to believe he “might” be responsible, she said.
Haigwood, an adjunct professor at Oregon Health and Science University, said she “always hoped he was not responsible, but I was worried that he was.”
“I am sorry that we could not get better closure on the case before Bruce took his life,” she said.
As investigators dug deeper, the FBI focused its investigation on those with access to the RMR-1029.
A 92-page summary of the Amerithrax investigation issued by the Justice Department in 2010 noted Ivins' habit of working late into the night and at odd hours around the time of the attacks as well as some unexplained time away from the lab. The summary gave Ivins' professional disappointments as motive — an anthrax vaccine program he'd worked on was in jeopardy — and also referenced his obsession with Kappa Kappa Gamma. The mailbox from which the anthrax letters were sent in Princeton, N.J., was close to a Kappa Kappa Gamma location.
“A GPS device was installed on his car, interviews with his associates were conducted, his trash was regularly searched, and confidential sources were used to gather further information,” the Justice Department report said.
That FBI's evidence is not enough for Henry Heine, now at the University of Florida or Gerard Andrews, now of the University of Wyoming. Heine worked at USAMRIID until 2010 and was one of Ivins' friends. Andrews served as chief of USAMRIID's bacteriology division from 2000 until 2003.
It wasn't uncommon for researchers working on time-sensitive experiments to keep odd hours.
“He had absolute justification and cause to go into that suite at night,” Andrews said. “Biological systems don't work according to your schedule.”
“This whole thing has been insulting and offensive and scandalous as far as I'm concerned,” Andrews said.
As the FBI's investigation dragged on, investigators played USAMRIID employees off each other. Heine said someone had searched his cabin in West Virginia as well as his truck one night as he slept. He knew it was investigators because "everything was nice and neatly laid out on the seat, like nice and even,” Heine said.
As pressure mounted, Heine said Ivins tried accusing him of being the attacker.
“He was being told that everybody was pointing fingers at him,” Heine said.
Ivins' work emails show his increasingly desperate mental state, his penchant for joking with colleagues and also revealed some of the stresses of the FBI investigation. In one email, sent July 8, 2008, to an undisclosed recipient, Ivins asks the recipient to help get his inventory straightened out “all because on Nov 1, 2007, the FBI came in and seized lots of material from my locked refrigerator in my locked room in our locked containment suite.”
Around this same time, Ivins was receiving updates about the need to report for routine safety training. Ivins made several references to no longer being allowed to work in labs and also indicated that he planned to retire as early as Sept. 2, 2008.
“I don't think I'm even allowed escorted access into the laboratory areas. But I can remember them still...palm trees, sand, the sea rushing up to kiss the shore, soft music playing as the sun goes down...ah, yes, those were the days of (redacted) and (redacted),” he wrote in one email dated July 8, 2008.
The following day, July 9, 2008, Ivins attended a group therapy session during which his counselor, Jean Duley, said he made homicidal threats and referenced charges pending against him. Police picked up Ivins the next day, and he was hospitalized until July 24, 2008. On that day, Frederick County District Court Judge W. Milnor Roberts issued a peace order barring Ivins from contacting or going near Duley. A hearing was set for July 31, 2008.
“It comes down to it has nothing to do with whether he was guilty or innocent,” Heine said. “It comes down to his personality, and how he dealt with the pressure.”
Rachel Lieber, the Justice Department's lead attorney in the Ivins case, was not able to comment for this story. She told Frontline in 2011 that the “confluence of all these things taken together, that's the compelling evidence.”
“It's only when you take a step back and you look at all the evidence taken together can you realize this is the right person,” Lieber said.
Follow Courtney Mabeus on Twitter: @courtmabeus.