Nearly two years after anthrax-spore mailings killed five people and sickened 17 others, Army scientist Bruce E. Ivins accepted the Defense Department’s highest honor for civilian performance for helping to resurrect a controversial vaccine that could protect against the deadly bacteria.
At a March 2003 ceremony, Ivins humbly described the award, which he received along with several colleagues, as unexpected. “Awards are nice. But the real satisfaction is knowing the vaccine is back on-line,” he told a military publication.
Now, Ivins, 62, who the state chief medical examiner said died this week by suicide, is being implicated in a crime that has ranked as one of the FBI’s biggest unsolved mysteries and most baffling technical cases. The shy, socially awkward anthrax scientist was on the verge of indictment in the anthrax-spore mailings case, according to officials familiar with the investigation, and killed himself with a drug overdose as the FBI ratcheted up the pressure against him.
Among the small circle of scientists who worked with him he was solid, quiet, eccentric, even and a bit nerdy. But he also had a darker side, as suggested by court papers filed last month by Jean C. Duley, who asked a Frederick judge for a protective order against Ivins, saying he had repeatedly threatened her.
“Client has a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions, plans,” the woman wrote in note attached to her request for protection. She said Ivins’ psychiatrist had confided to her that the scientist was “homicidal, sociopathic with clear intentions.” She also noted that she had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury about a capital murder case involving Ivins.
It was a far different Ivins from the one colleagues and neighbors knew.
As a microbiologist at the Army’s main lab for studying bioterror agents, Ivins labored for years on the development of anthrax vaccines and had access to various strains of the anthrax bacteria, including the one used in attacks on media outlets and congressional offices in the fall of 2001. Because of his unusual expertise, he was even tapped by federal investigators to help with the technical analysis of the fine, wispy powder used in the attacks.
“He always seemed on the edge — the kind of guy who might jump through the ceiling if you said ‘boo’ to him,” said former colleague Richard O. Spertzel, who worked with Ivins at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, at the Fort Detrick army base in Frederick. “But he was a well-respected scientist.”