After the suicide last week of Bruce Ivins, the FBI’s prime suspect in the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people and had a nation fearing to open its mail, a friend and former colleague of the microbiologist says federal investigators were going after the wrong person and that it was their pressure on Ivins that led to his demise at his own hands.
“It’s possible somebody could hide that from all of your co-workers and nobody would ever hear about it,” Dr. Russell Byrne acknowledged to TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Monday. “But I really, really doubt it.”
Byrne, an infectious-disease specialist who worked as a research scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases from 1993 to 2000, described himself as a friend of Ivins for 15 years. They attended the same Roman Catholic church in Frederick, Md., where Ivins was a member of the church band. After viewing a pre-interview report about the FBI’s investigation of Ivins, Byrne appeared so visibly shaken that Vieira commented on it.
“A lot of it is just consternation at the ridiculous motives they’re attributing, and I get upset whenever I hear that,” Byrne explained.
From scientist to suspect
Ivins, 62, was a leading anthrax researcher at the U.S. Army’s main biodefense laboratories at Fort Detrick, Md. His work investigating vaccines and cures for exposure to anthrax earned him the Pentagon’s highest honor for civilian employees.
Ivins took an overdose of Tylenol with codeine and died Tuesday after being told the FBI planned to charge him with producing the powdery anthrax spores used in the deadly mailings that terrorized the nation in the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Like many colleagues at Fort Detrick’s Army medical lab, Ivins served as an occasional consultant for the FBI during the investigation. But it was Ivins himself who emerged as a prime suspect for federal prosecutors because of his access to the specific strain of anthrax used in the mailings, and to equipment that could convert it to the ultrafine power that killed five people and sickened 22 others.
Though Byrne’s direct contact with Ivins was limited as the investigation accelerated, he told Vieira that others painted him a portrait of Ivins as a man crumbling under pressure.
“I got information mostly second- and third-hand from the people who were still working with him,” Byrne told Vieira. “And the changes really began to accelerate in the past year.
“One of my friends who worked with him said he would sit at his desk and weep. He really couldn’t do his work anymore. The pressure was tremendous.”
Officials say they had been preparing an indictment against Ivins and would have sought the death penalty for his involvement in the anthrax-laced letters mailed from a New Jersey post office box that crippled mail delivery for months.
Some reports suggested prosecutors were working on the theory that Ivins may have sent the anthrax-filled letters to test a vaccine he had helped developed for the toxin. But Byrne considers that motive ludicrous, because the government restricts income from inventions produced in its laboratories to no more than $150,000 per year.
“[Ivins] was one of five researchers who patented that,” Byrne pointed out. “The patent is owned by the United States government. There may be some small monetary incentives, but the government owns that patent.”
To illustrate the intensity of the investigation’s pressure on Ivins, Byrne related an anecdote. He said that the FBI had inquired as to why Ivins might have borrowed a set of Byrne’s camouflage uniforms. Byrne explained to them that Ivins had borrowed the uniforms to dress as a member of ’70s music group the Village People at a Halloween costume party.
“It became a running joke how he never returned them to me,” Byrne recalled. “One week after I saw the FBI, [Ivins] brought them back to the house — but neither one of us could talk about that. That was the big elephant in the room that we couldn’t discuss [because] I had signed a paper saying [that] if I discussed anything about this interview, I could be liable for criminal prosecution.”
A downward spiral
Despite Byrne’s doubts about Ivins’ guilt, a former therapist of Ivins told a Maryland court on July 24 that Ivins was a “sociopathic, homicidal killer” who planned to “go out in a blaze of glory” by killing his co-workers because of his impending indictment.
The New York Times exclusively obtained audiotape of a court hearing where Jean Carol Duley, a psychotherapist who had treated Ivins for six months, described Ivins as a “revenge killer” who had purchased a gun and a bulletproof vest. She also feared for her own life and successfully obtained a restraining order against him.