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Scientist Being Probed For Anthrax Said To Kill Self

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. It has been a day filled with questions about a major new development in the case of the 2001 anthrax attacks. Back then, envelopes full of anthrax killed five people, sickened others and shut down the U.S. postal system. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Some post offices were closed by the attacks, but mail continued to be delivered.]

The immediate news today was of a suicide. As it turns out, the man who killed himself earlier this week was about to be charged for sending the tainted letters.

Prosecutors were going to seek the death penalty for a microbiologist named Bruce Ivins. He studied anthrax vaccines at a biodefense research laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland. On Tuesday, Ivins overdosed on prescription painkillers.

We have several reports now. First, NPR's Ari Shapiro on what we know about the investigation. Hello, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO: Hi, Michele.

NORRIS: What has the government said about this?

SHAPIRO: Virtually nothing, which has made victims furious. All day, they have been getting leaks from the Justice Department, the FBI, government sources, court records, but the government is publicly saying almost nothing. One source told me she had to call the Justice Department herself after she learned in the media about Bruce Ivins. Senator Patrick Leahy, whose office received one of the anthrax envelopes, learned about this from the news media. He had talked with FBI director Robert Mueller very recently, and in that conversation, Mueller said nothing about Bruce Ivins. Leahy had never heard the man's name before.

We have had statements from the lawyer for Bruce Ivins. His name is Paul Kemp. He insisted that Ivins is innocent. He said his client had been cooperating with investigators for the last six years. And he said the relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo was what led to his client's death this week.

NORRIS: Now, is it possible that the government is gun-shy about this because they flagged the wrong the guy a few years ago?

SHAPIRO: Absolutely, that's exactly what's going on here. Steven Hatfill is the man who they initially fingered. Hatfill was innocent. He sued the government, and the government ended up having to pay more than $5 million in settlement to him. So, they're very gun-shy about this, but we're hearing from sources that Bruce Ivins is the man they were convinced carried out these attacks.

NORRIS: Now, as we said, Ivins worked at Fort Detrick in Maryland. How did the government miss him for seven years?

SHAPIRO: Well, they were really focused on Steven Hatfill. And in 2006, when it was clear that Hatfill wasn't the guy, FBI Director Mueller appointed new agents to oversee the investigation. They said, go back, look at every thread we may have missed, every apparent dead end, and see if there's any more there. And it turned out Bruce Ivins had come under scrutiny earlier because of a lab spill that he had not reported, an anthrax leak that he cleaned up without telling anyone. That made them suspicious. It raised some red flags. And as they dug deeper, it turns out he also had some mental health problems that we've been learning more about today.

NORRIS: Tell me a little bit more about that.

SHAPIRO: Well, they were laid out in a restraining order that was issued just a week ago. His mental health counselor, Jean Duley, sought this restraining order, and I'm just going to give you some quotes from what she wrote. She said, client has a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions and plans. His psychiatrist called him homicidal, sociopathic with clear intentions. She wrote, FBI involved, currently under investigation and will be charged with 5 capital murders. And then she said, I have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury August 1, 2008 in Washington, D.C. That's today, and obviously, that testimony did not happen.

NORRIS: Now, just quickly, Ari. Is this the end of the case? Case closed or, well, does this investigation continue?

SHAPIRO: We're expecting more details next week. Officially, the case has not publicly been closed, but that may happen. The folks at the FBI just feel like they can't get a break here. As one former law enforcement official told me today, the FBI always gets their man. He may be dead and it may be seven years late, and they may have gotten the wrong man first, but they always get their man. That's assuming, of course, that this guy was their man.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro. Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: August 5, 2008 at 1:08 PM EDT
The introduction to this story says the 2001 anthrax attacks "shut down the U.S. postal system." Some post offices were closed by the attacks, but mail continued to be delivered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.