Death by Mail: The Anthrax Letters Debuts Sunday, October 2 at 8:00p.m. and 11:00p.m. ET & PT
Drawing from recently released FBI and Justice Department documents of what is officially called the Amerithrax Investigation, Johns tells the story of the complex, seven-year investigation into what happened and who was allegedly responsible for the deadly letters, explaining the bizarre turns in the bioterrorism case that extended the nation’s horror.
From the beginning, federal investigators turned for help to the scientific community on the belief that the killer may have been a rogue insider from the biotech industry. Thomas Dellafera, the now-retired U.S. Postal Inspection Service team leader on Amerithrax, describes how authorities even requested that the scientists working in bioweapons defense research submit to polygraph testing.
One scientist, Nancy Haigwood, suspected a former colleague and contacted the FBI with the name “Bruce Ivins.”
“In my mind, it was as though something clicked,” she tells Johns, “I just thought I might actually know the person.” She described Ivins’s years-long history of stalking and his odd obsession with her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma.
But for the next four and a half years, her tip was low priority. “We didn't know how it related to the crime,” says Dellafera.
Ivins escaped federal scrutiny for years while investigators pursued other leads, including targeting an innocent man. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly identified former U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) scientist, Steven Hatfill as a ‘person of interest.’ But, Johns explains, nothing collected in the Hatfill investigation ever connected him to the crime. Ultimately, Hatfill was determined not responsible for the crimes, and the federal government paid him nearly six million dollars to settle a lawsuit for allegedly violating his right to privacy.
Death by Mail reveals a hidden side of Bruce Ivins that federal agents remained unaware of until near the end of their investigation. In emails to colleagues, Ivins describes his disturbed mental state and fears he is becoming paranoid and losing control.
By July 2008, federal prosecutors believed they had enough credible circumstantial evidence to indict Ivins for Use of a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Scientists hired by the FBI had matched four genetic mutations in the attack anthrax to the same mutations in a flask of anthrax in Ivins’s lab.
“There was no one who was more experienced at growing, purifying and handling, preparing anthrax spores at Fort Detrick than Bruce Ivins,” says David Willman, Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and the author of The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks, and America’s Rush to War (April 2011).
Investigators theorize his motive may have been to increase interest and funding for a new anthrax vaccine that he had helped to invent, which he apparently feared had become a low priority.
Ivins denied having anything to do with the anthrax attacks, and to this day, Ivins has defenders. “How it was made, how it was prepared, where it was done, over what period of time -- there’s a total void of evidence,” Ivins’s attorney, Paul Kemp of Rockville, MD, tells CNN. And there is no direct evidence linking Ivins to the crime: no DNA on the letters, no fingerprints, and no eyewitnesses.
Bruce Ivins committed suicide just as investigators appeared to be ready to bring formal charges against him. No one has ever been officially charged with the anthrax letter attacks, though Johns’ report dissects the evidence, explains why doubts linger about the guilt of the main suspect, and asks if such an attack could ever happen again.