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Death Of Suspect In Anthrax Attacks Called Suicide

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

And I'm Deborah Amos in for Steve Inskeep.

A U.S. scientist suspected in the 2001 anthrax attacks died in an apparent suicide. The Los Angeles Times reported this morning that government scientist Bruce Ivins took an overdose of pain medication hours before he was to be indicted for the crime. Five people died in 2001 when anthrax was sent to media organizations and politicians. At the time, Ivins, a microbiologist helped the FBI investigate the anthrax-tainted envelopes.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has been following the story and he joins me now. Good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Deb.

AMOS: Has the Justice Department so far confirmed that it was about to file charges against Ivins?

SHAPIRO: Not publicly. The Justice Department and FBI have both given no comments. But a justice official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case said we can expect an announcement later today. Apparently prosecutors were planning to seek the death penalty in this case which would not be surprising. After all, as you mentioned, this attacks killed five people. They shut down the postal system. It's not an exaggeration to say that they cause mass panic. And so, this was a very serious case that they were, after seven years, about to bring to a close when Bruce Ivins, the man they were going to charge, committed suicide.

AMOS: Well, indeed, seven years. When did they learn about Ivins' involvement and how did they figure it out?

SHAPIRO: Well, he - was flagged early on for failing to report a contamination in his anthrax lab that took place in 2001 and 2002. But then they sort of moved on from that. And it was apparently only in 2006 when this investigation got new leadership. That people went back to leads that they may not have pursued thoroughly enough. In addition, there was a new scientific development that allowed scientists to do a closer examination of the anthrax that was in these envelopes that went to Capitol Hill and to the news offices, and apparently revisiting these leads and doing that scientific analysis led to hone in on Bruce Ivins, the scientist who, you know, in a strange twist had actually studied some of these envelopes that were sent to Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

AMOS: Well, indeed. They thought they had the case wrapped up before.

SHAPIRO: Right. There was this man named Steven Hatfill, you may remember, who was publicly named as a person of interest. He later filed a lawsuit because he was entirely innocent, had nothing to do with the anthrax and said that because of the leak of his name, his life and career were essentially ruined. Apparently, paying him this $5.8 million that the FBI gave him in settlement cleared the way to allow the FBI to pursue Bruce Ivins, to charge him in court, because after publicly exonerating Steven Hatfill, they could then turn their sights on, on this scientist, Mr. Ivins. And that may have been one of the motivations for giving Mr. Hatfill this really large payout of $5.8 million.

But, you know, just to give you a sense of how closely they were holding this, Bruce Ivins' name. Senator Patrick Leahy is one of the senators who received an anthrax mailing. He had been getting private briefings on the investigation. One of his aides told me this morning that Ivins' name never even came up in these briefings.

AMOS: Does this put this case to rest?

SHAPIRO: Well, it is an interesting conclusion to this arc, where right after 9/11, you know, really in the wake of the Twin Towers collapsing, people were afraid of chemical or biological attacks. They suspected this might be al- Qaida. Suddenly, newsrooms including ABC where you work started getting anthrax. People were dying and finally, after seven years - after this having, lying dormant for so long - it seems as though we may in fact have closure in this case that has gone on and on without any real answer.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

AMOS: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro. 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.