A new book by a Pulitzer Prize winner, David Willman, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, should put to rest any doubt about Bruce Ivins’ involvement in the five anthrax murders a decade ago.
Willman spent years researching the case, and concluded that “there is a chain of evidence — pieces that, considered as a whole, reveal Ivins to be the perpetrator.” There is no confession; the Fort Detrick scientist killed himself three years ago.
Willman’s account, stitched together from government documents, Ivins’ own emails to friends and colleagues, and hundreds of interviews, is the most compelling account so far.
It comes five months after a blue-ribbon independent panel concluded that if Ivins had not been committed involuntarily to the hospital for a mental evaluation after displaying bizarre behavior, he could have killed more people.
Willman writes that Ivins, who said he was “not a killer at heart,” also told his psychiatric group that he was angry at FBI investigators. He planned revenge. He had a bulletproof vest and guns. He told the group members, “I’m not going go down for five capital murders. ... I am going to get them all,” according to an FBI report.
Yet, many of his friends and colleagues continue to remember Ivins as a harmless eccentric who worked solitary, long, night-time hours but was incapable of killing anyone. He was just Bruce being Bruce.
This book should disabuse them of such a naïve notion.
Ivins’ supporters contend that he didn’t have the opportunity or the capability to put together the powdered, highly lethal anthrax mailed to reporters, including NBC’s Tom Brokaw and two Democratic senators, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Tom Daschle of South Dakota. They were not harmed, but several mail clerks in a Washington sorting facility and a tabloid photo editor in Florida died.
Willman reports that Ivins not only wanted to show that an improved anthrax vaccine he co-invented was needed to deal with the post-9/11 threat, but he also had a list of personal enemies he wanted to punish. He was angry at a sorority, for example, because a sorority woman had rebuffed him on a date decades ago.
And he had a fascination with a couple of young female scientists at Detrick, constantly emailing them while, at one point, planning to poison one of them, according to the FBI’s files.
Ivins, who aimed suspicion at several of his Fort Detrick colleagues, regularly went in and out of the “hot suites” at Detrick at night alone and had plenty of time to drive to Princeton, N.J., where the anthrax letters were mailed from. The mailbox was also a few doors away from one of the sorority's houses.
Willman also goes into great detail on the exhaustive nationwide scientific sleuthing to link the killer anthrax with a supply found in Ivins’ work space.
“Given all the circumstances pointing to him, it is reasonable to conclude that Ivins did it for reasons unique to both his psychosis and his professional self-interest,” concludes Willman’s well-researched book.
American officials, who for years had resisted pouring big money into Ivins’ advanced anthrax vaccine — in fact, the program’s research was about to be scuttled — committed hundreds of millions after the letters started their deadly rampage.
One telling fact: There have been no anthrax murders since Ivins died.
Joe Volz is a Pulitzer Prize finalist who has covered every aspect of government from the White House to the Frederick County school board. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To submit a letter to the editor in response to this column, email email@example.com.