IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The story behind the ‘Mirage Man’ of the anthrax attacks

Discover the story behind the investigation of Bruce Ivins and his role in the deadly 2001 anthrax mailings in the new book "The Mirage Man."
/ Source: TODAY books

In the weeks following 9/11, a handful of anthrax letters were dumped into a mailbox addressed to media outlets and U.S. senators. The ensuing investigation was one of the biggest ever undertaken in the United States, but after many false leads — and long after the country had gone to war with Iraq, partially over claims that they had been involved — the FBI landed on the probable culprit, a government scientist named Bruce Ivins. In “The Mirage Man,” Los Angeles Times journalist David Willman delves into Ivins’ life, exposes the faulty FBI investigation, the rush to use faulty science to propagate a war, and lays to rest one of the most sinister mass murders on American soil. An excerpt:

Chapter 1: She would kill you
For most of the twentieth century, Lebanon, Ohio, embodied the small-town America of Norman Rockwell. It was a place where doors were left unlocked, where kids roamed without fear. The shops in the well-scrubbed downtown were family-owned. Malts and burgers were served at the soda fountains on Broadway. On the same street, Ohio’s oldest inn and restaurant, the Golden Lamb, boasted of having entertained ten U.S. presidents, not to mention Henry Clay and Charles Dickens.

Founded as a stagecoach stop in the state’s southwest corner, midway between Cincinnati and Dayton, the town of Lebanon (“LEBB-in-in”) grew into a bedroom community of several thousand. Farm kids mixed with classmates whose parents worked for National Cash Register, General Motors, and Frigidaire in Dayton, for General Electric or the German-family breweries in Cincinnati, the Armco Steel plant in Middletown, and the paper mills in Franklin.

Lebanon’s nicest neighborhoods were just south of downtown, across the double-arch Turtle Creek Bridge, built in 1897. The first cross street up the hill from the bridge was Orchard Avenue, home to prominent families, including doctors and for a number of years the town’s only municipal court judge.

The second-generation proprietor of Ivins-Jameson Drugs, a Lebanon fixture with roots in the nineteenth century, also landed on Orchard Avenue. T. Randall Ivins — the T. stood for Thomas but most everyone called him Randall — had been in no particular hurry to take on the mantle of the family business. Born in 1905 in Lebanon, Randall was raised on the high ground above Turtle Creek, known as South Broadway Hill. His was a childhood that could have been scripted by Mark Twain. He and his pals filled summer days with baseball in an open lot; they rode the trolley to the outskirts of Cincinnati to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Their favorite swimming hole was a clear-water stream within walking distance of their homes, in the woods of McBurney Hills. There they fished and made use of an aptly shaped tree stump to stash their corncob pipes and tobacco.

Randall left Ohio after the seventh grade to attend Princeton Preparatory School in New Jersey; he later majored in journalism at Wilmington College of Ohio and psychology at Princeton University. After graduating he worked as a cub reporter at the Commercial Tribune in Cincinnati, and as a public school teacher, eventually serving as principal of Lebanon’s elementary school. It was said that his time as an educator had not been entirely successful — he was simply too nice, incapable of imposing or maintaining discipline.

In December 1933, Randall married twenty-six-year-old Mary Johnson Knight, a petite brunette who had earned a four-year degree in home economics from Florida Women’s State College. Family lore held that the Knights were original settlers at Jamestown, that their genes were the stronger for having survived its hardships. Mary grew up in Brandon, Florida, near Tampa. She and Randall had met while he was vacationing in the North Florida Panhandle. Shortly after marrying, the new couple set about planning a family, and they hired an architect to build a home, at 26 Orchard Avenue, just around the corner from where Randall had grown up. The structure was single story with European flourishes, notably an ornamental turret that rose to the right of the front door.

With his marriage to Mary, Randall decided on a career in pharmacy. He enrolled in classes at the University of Cincinnati to get his state license and he began working at Ivins-Jameson Drugs, the family store founded in 1893 and still operated by his father, C. Wilbur Ivins, a charter member of the Lebanon Rotary Club. Randall had arrived none too soon. In January 1938, C. Wilbur died from a stroke while wintering with his wife in Sarasota, Florida. The store was left in the hands of his son and Clarence Jameson, whom the elder Ivins had trained and had taken on as his partner nineteen years earlier.On April 22, 1946, Mary gave birth to the couple’s third and final child, Bruce Edwards Ivins. His older siblings were Thomas, eleven, and Charles, “C.W.,” seven. Bruce would learn how to avoid Tom, who C.W. later suspected had grown to prefer the status of only child.

Their brother, however, was not their biggest concern. Mary Ivins was prim, and comfortable using force to get her way. She was more than willing to impose whatever discipline the kindly Randall might shy away from. Her eruptions were frequent and could not always be predicted, though Bruce could see that C.W. made it a top priority to try to anticipate what was most likely to set her off.

The Ivinses were well off by local standards and lived comfortably, while buying nothing on credit. The parents drove what C.W. called “ocean liners,” the heavy, smooth-riding sedans that defined the golden age of Detroit’s Big Four. Color photographs captured some of the family’s early moments together, including Christmas Eve 1947. Bruce, one year, eight months, is seen pressing keys on the family grand piano while his brothers watched. A snapshot from a year later shows C.W., Tom, and, to the right, Bruce, tightly clutching his brown teddy bear. By first grade, Bruce had devised an unusual way to play with it and other stuffed animals. He put blindfolds on them.

Mary hovered over her youngest son, closely monitoring his academic progress and his interactions with other children. During his elementary school years, she always served as a room mother to Bruce’s class. She and Randall also hosted elaborate, well-attended Halloween parties for Bruce and his classmates.

Apart from the gaiety of those parties, Mary Ivins ran the household like a boot camp. Her maxim for child rearing: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” C.W. later explained, “Mom was one of these people that you had to justify your actions. So we learned always to have a reason for doing anything. If you acted on impulse you were gambling that you were going to get hit by lightning by impulse, too.”

Piano lessons were mandatory, and so was worship. Although Mary had been raised in the Southern Baptist church, she disliked the local Baptist preacher, so she and her sons attended Lebanon Presbyterian, where Pastor J. Taylor McHendry, “Little Mac,” presided. After church each Sunday, the boys were required to wear their suits and ties for a midday meal in the family’s formal dining room, outfitted with mahogany furnishings, a Czech chandelier, and French wallpaper with velvetlike flocking. “If Mom ever caught you feeling it, she would kill you,” C.W. recalled. “Mom could explode. She didn’t know about the sliding switch that could adjust the illumination. It was either on or off. She inflicted terror on all of us.”

During summers Mary Ivins would load Bruce and C.W. into the family sedan and set out on weeks-long excursions while Randall stayed behind in Lebanon. She designed the trips to educate her two youngest sons about American history and geography. Mary’s snapshots document some of the places they visited: the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, Yellowstone National Park, the Colorado Rockies, the Badlands in South Dakota, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.9 There also was a trip, in 1956, in which the family traveled through Princeton, New Jersey.

C.W. was a partial buffer between Bruce and their mother. “She just made him feel on edge, like she did everybody else,” recalled Martha Leuzinger, who worked at the drugstore and saw a lot of Mary Ivins.11 When C.W. went to college, by which time Tom had been out of the house for several years, Bruce was left behind in a household thoroughly dominated by his mother, his home life grimmer than ever as he prepared to enter the sixth grade.

When her husband’s older business partner, Clarence Jameson, died in 1959, Mary, who had been working part-time at the pharmacy, consolidated her influence at the renamed Ivins Drugs. She fired anyone she felt didn’t meet her standards. While Randall continued to mix and fill the prescriptions, Mary took control of everything else. Always formally dressed, her hair set in a wave, she built up what was, for small-town Lebanon, a lavish line of high-end cosmetics, including Chanel No. 5. She made sure that the other products, including the cigars, the refrigerated display of Whitman’s Samplers, and the horehound candy drops, kept up front in a wooden barrel, remained in ample supply.

“When she came in, everybody was on their toes,” said Jacqueline Sams, a student Mary had recruited as a part-time employee and whose brother was Bruce’s friend. “You didn’t know what was going to set her off.”One day she spotted a rumpled man sitting outside on the concrete steps and, obviously, down on his luck. As the store clerks watched, Mrs. Ivins filled a bucket with water, calmly strode out to the steps, pretended to stumble, and thoroughly drenched the man.13 On another occasion, suspecting that a couple of boys had done some minor vandalism to the Ivins residence, she waited until nightfall and, dressed in a disguise, splashed paint onto the side of the house where one of them lived.

Bruce was a physically and socially awkward child, “Bruce the Goose,” as his irreverent classmate Larry Buchanan nicknamed him. A story from his grade school years recounts the time he was playing softball and got thwacked in the head by the ball, batted not by anyone resembling slugger Ted “Big Klu” Kluszewski of the hometown Cincinnati Reds, but by a bookish and bespectacled girl, fellow fourth grader Elaine Kraus.

While Randall Ivins had wandered freely as a boy, his youngest son was more comfortable with a chemistry set. Bruce took to wearing a plastic pocket protector, and he talked in rapid-fire bursts. He treasured the expensive microscope his parents bought him and he featured it in his ninth-grade science project. The instrument elevated Bruce from the crowd — enabling him to see things that his classmates could not with their hobby-grade microscopes. When he walked he leaned forward from the waist, as if propelled by an inner purpose. He was a teenager so preoccupied that he didn’t seem to notice what some classmates remember to this day — the persistent knots of mucus suspended in his nostrils. With rare exception, he moved about Lebanon alone.

Many of his peers at Lebanon High School found Bruce to be uncommonly high-strung, a boy who craved approval, yet struggled to fit in. Bob Edens passed by the Ivins residence every weekday afternoon and on weekends, delivering the Dayton Daily News on his sturdy Schwinn. Edens, a good enough student himself, thought Bruce was uniquely strange. “He was very intelligent and made sure that everyone around him knew it,” Edens recalled. “He was a pain in the ass. He had an inability to become a part of the group in a natural way. So he would act out to get attention in weird ways. It was, ‘I’m here. Notice me.’ ... He had no sense of normalcy. He was just a highly wound individual.”

Another classmate, Lana Neeley, a neighbor on Orchard Avenue, described what happened one day when her mother asked her to deliver something to the Ivins home. Lana was invited in, and as she waited for Mrs. Ivins, “Bruce asked me if I wanted to come down to the basement and see the gunpowder he’d just made.” Lana, then fourteen, declined. She told her mother she would never set foot in the Ivins house again.

One of Bruce’s warmest relationships at Lebanon High was with a teacher, Dean Deerhake, a rail-thin man with a flattop haircut who crackled with enthusiasm. Deerhake taught junior year chemistry, and Bruce, who had excelled in biology the year before, was one of his top students. Ivins did not join the crowd easily, if at all, Deerhake recalled. “Some of the questions he would ask would cause some of the other students to turn their heads. He was different. A little bit out in left field.”

Deerhake himself was a bit different. He wouldn’t hesitate to stand on a desk if he thought it might strike a chord with his charges. It was Deerhake who persuaded Bruce to try the cross-country team, which he coached after school. Cross-country provided a team framework for a solitary activity: training regularly over long distances and running two miles on race day through the Ohio countryside. Bruce Ivins wasn’t fast enough to race with the varsity, but in the fall of 1963, his senior season, he once finished with a time of 13:47, placing him thirteenth among forty or more “reserve,” or junior varsity, runners.

As Bruce’s teacher and coach, Deerhake got to know his parents. He found Mary immediately intimidating, Randall just the opposite. The summer before Bruce’s senior year, Randall approached Deerhake with a proposition, no doubt made possible by one of the pharmaceutical salesmen who regularly called upon Ivins Drugs: Would Mr. Deerhake be interested in driving Bruce up to the drug company’s manufacturing plant in Michigan, for an insider’s tour? It would be about a four- hour drive each way, entailing an overnight stay. The payoff would be a scientific opportunity for student and teacher — a chance to observe firsthand the conversion of raw materials to finished medical products.

Deerhake said yes, and he and his wife drove Bruce to the plant in their blue Ford Custom sedan. They saw a movie (West Side Story), and Bruce seemed to relax on the road with the cheerful Deerhakes. He fit in as if he was their son.Bruce’s isolation as a teenager was magnified by his struggle to communicate with the opposite sex. “He was just a loner. He was so backward with women,” said classmate Patricia McDaniel.21 His plight wasn’t made any easier by his self-consciousness about his looks. Gaunt, with a forehead that rose tall and flat, his profile was unmistakable. He was not considered a handsome young man. “His nose wouldn’t be taken care of. He was just a duckling,” said Ellen Leuzinger who was a year younger.

In his pained social interactions at Lebanon High, Bruce was operating, as in most aspects of his life, in the long shadow of his mother. One of the few schoolgirls with whom he was friendly was Elaine Kraus, the same Elaine whose batted ball had hit Bruce in the head in the fourth grade. Whip-smart and toughened by life on her parents’ hundred-acre farm, Elaine was on a college-prep track, like Bruce. Both were members of the Current Events Club and the school newspaper staff, and they took part in campus stage productions.

Elaine, like so many others, viewed Bruce as nervous, hyper, “almost socially backward.” She noticed that sweat would bead on his forehead and he would become so stressed he could hardly sit still. To his “Bruce the Goose,” she was “Elaine the Brain.” Proud nerds before the term had currency, they were buddies of a sort, though Elaine felt no romantic attraction to him. And Bruce never hinted at such to her. None of which deterred Mary Ivins. “I don’t know why you and Bruce aren’t going out. You know, the two of you ought to get married.” Elaine heard this from Mrs. Ivins whenever she saw her.

Excerpted from "The Mirage Man" by David Willman. Copyright © 2011 by David Willman. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.