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Ex-colleague questions government's case against anthrax suspect

August 08, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

GREENCASTLE, Pa. -- A former Fort Detrick employee is among those questioning the government's case against Bruce Ivins, who authorities say was behind the post-9/11 anthrax letters.

Melanie Ulrich of Greencastle, Pa., who teaches at Hagerstown Community College, on Wednesday challenged circumstantial evidence against Ivins that has been made public.

Ivins killed himself last week. News reports have said prosecutors were preparing charges against him.

Court documents unsealed Wednesday shed more light on the case as the government declared it solved.

Authorities say advanced DNA testing matched anthrax spores in Ivins' laboratory to those that killed five people in 2001, according to The Associated Press.

Erratic behavior, unexplained late-night lab work, "paranoid, delusional thoughts" and obstruction with the government's investigation are cited as further evidence against Ivins.

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"We are confident that Dr. Ivins was the only person responsible for these attacks," U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said, according to the AP.

Ivins' attorney, though, has said the government hasn't proven its case.

Ulrich said she worked with Ivins at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., for about six years. The person she knew doesn't match the troubled past Ivins is alleged to have had, she said.

Ulrich said other elements of the case don't add up, including:

  • Whether psychological instability in Ivins' past could have lingered for years. Ulrich said that in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, anyone at USAMRIID who had access to certain biological agents, such as anthrax, had to go through an intensive, all-encompassing review as part of a Personnel Reliability Program, which trumped, for example, privacy rules for health records.

  • A flask in Ivins' custody that contained anthrax said to be the "parent" to powdered anthrax sent through the mail. Ulrich said different anthrax samples were genetically identical, so that flask can't be proven to be the "parent" sample. Also, the flask was for aerosol use, which would have been done in a different building than the one in which Ivins worked, she said.

  • Ivins' alleged use of a lyophilizer to make powdered anthrax. Ulrich said Ivins signed out a SpeedVac, but not a lyophilizer, which is too large to fit in a containment hood, or secure protective area.

    She said it would take about an hour to dry one milliliter of wet anthrax spores in one vial in a SpeedVac. It would have been impossible for Ivins to have dried more than a liter, which would have been required for the amount of anthrax sent in the letters, in the time frame they were mailed, Ulrich said.

    Ulrich was a principal investigator in the diagnostic systems division at USAMRIID.

    She said Ivins was a "geeky scientist" who wrote poems and was sensitive and unintimidating.

    He had been to her home for USAMRIID social activities, including a barbecue and a party.

    She said Ivins was upset the FBI was watching him, but handled it as well as he could. "I've never even seen him angry," Ulrich said.

    Ulrich left USAMRIID in 2007. She now teaches at HCC and coordinates the year-old biotechnology program.

    Ulrich said the FBI interviewed her within the past year as part of its investigation. She said she can't talk about what was discussed, but the points she expressed in this story didn't come up during the interview.




    The United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases prepared the following summary to help answer questions about the anthrax investigation and the suicide of scientist Bruce Ivins.




    USAMRIID has made significant progress in developing and implementing the requirements of the U.S. Army's biosurety program. The safety of the USAMRIID staff and the security of the biological agents on which it works have always been top priority, even before the events of 2001 and the institution of the formal biosurety program.

    Dr. Bruce Ivins, the scientist who committed suicide July 29, played a key role in the anthrax vaccine research and development program at USAMRIID. The Institute's mission is to conduct research that leads to development of medical countermeasures -- vaccines, drugs, diagnostic tools, and information -- that protect U.S. troops from biological threats.

    In addition to conducting anthrax research, Dr. Ivins assisted the FBI with its investigation following the anthrax mail attacks of 2001. He and his colleagues also were interviewed several times as part of that investigation. Recent news reports indicate that Dr. Ivins was about to be indicted by the FBI for the 5 murders resulting from the anthrax letters of 2001.

    QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS



    Q1. How long did Dr. Ivins work at USAMRIID and what were his duties?

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