Into a Microbiologist’s Troubled Mind

May 29, 2011

Bruce Ivins, who became a respected Army scientist and an authority on the laboratory use of anthrax, had a penchant for vendettas, especially against women.  He roamed the University of Cincinnati campus with a loaded gun. When his rage overflowed, the brainy microbiology major would open fire inside empty buildings, visualizing a wall clock or other object as a person who had done him wrong. 

by David Willman
Los Angeles Times

By the mid-1970s, Bruce Ivins had earned his doctorate and was a promising researcher at the University of North Carolina. By outward appearances, he was a charming eccentric, odd but disarming. Inside, he still smoldered with resentment, and he saw a new outlet for it.

Several years earlier, a Cincinnati student had turned him down for a date. He had projected his anger onto the young woman’s sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. There was a Kappa house in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Ivins cased the building. One night when it was empty, he slipped in through a bathroom window and roamed the darkened floors with a penlight.

Upstairs, he found something that fascinated him: a glass-enclosed sheaf of documents, called a cipher, necessary for decoding the sorority’s secrets. The cipher would help him wage a personal war against Kappa Kappa Gamma into the sixth decade of his life.

This was the side of himself that Ivins kept carefully hidden. He devised sneaky ways to strike anonymously at people or institutions he imagined had offended him. He harbored murderous fantasies about women who did not reciprocate his overtures. He bought bomb-making ingredients and kept firearms, ammunition and body armor in his basement.

Yet Ivins managed to work his way into the heart of the American biodefense establishment, becoming a respected Army scientist and an authority on the laboratory use of anthrax. When a series of anonymous, anthrax-laced letters killed five people, disrupted mail delivery and briefly paralyzed parts of the federal government in fall 2001, the FBI sought him out for advice.

The anthrax attacks, coming on the heels of Sept. 11, had enduring effects. They deepened fears of terrorism and helped advocates of a U.S. invasion of Iraq make their case to Congress and the public. They prompted an expensive and risky expansion of federally funded biodefense laboratories.

In the anxious weeks and months after the mailings, the nation’s defense and law enforcement establishments were consumed with finding out who was responsible. Was it Al Qaeda? Domestic terrorists? Some senior government officials suggested Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein might be to blame.

Investigators believed the poisoned envelopes were deposited in a curbside mailbox in downtown Princeton, N.J. Only years later would the significance of that location become clear.

The mailbox stood beneath the fourth-floor office of a college sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma.

Ivins grew up in Lebanon, Ohio, a small town 30 miles northeast of Cincinnati. His parents had planned the arrivals of their first two children, both sons, but by late 1945 the couple had no desire to add to the family. In conversations with a sister-in-law, Mary Ivins described how she tried to abort the unwanted third pregnancy:

Over and over, she descended a series of steps by bouncing with a thud on her buttocks.

Bruce Ivins, born April 22, 1946, would eventually hear the story himself.

His parents were a study in opposites. Randall, a pharmacist, was unfailingly generous, chatty and averse to confrontation. Mary’s prim facade hid a penchant for violence.

“Mom could explode,” recalled C.W. Ivins, Bruce’s middle brother. “She inflicted terror on all of us.”

Randall, the amiable proprietor of Ivins Drugs, would sometimes arrive at work bearing the evidence of her latest eruption.

“One day he came in and he had a black eye,” said a former employee, pharmacist Don Hawke. “Of course, she hit him with a broom. He said, ‘She missed me the first time.’ He was scared to death of her.”

On other occasions Mary took a skillet to Randall’s head and a fork to his hand.

One night, the phone rang at 2 a.m. at the home of Dr. Ralph Young, a neighbor.

It was Mary: “Ralph, come down here. I’ve killed Randall.”

To Young’s surprise, the door was answered by Randall — alive but pressing a garment to his blood-spattered head.

The Ivins’ youngest son seemed particularly affected by the family dysfunction.

As a first-grader, Bruce put blindfolds on his teddy bear and other stuffed animals (a precursor, he would say later, to his adult fixation with bondage).

When a 14-year-old classmate, Lana Neeley, arrived at the Ivins house on an errand for her mother, Bruce beckoned her to the basement to “see the gunpowder he’d just made.” She vowed never to set foot in the house again.

“He was very intelligent and made sure that everyone around him knew it,” said Bob Edens, who passed by the Ivins house regularly, delivering the Dayton Daily News. “He had an inability to become part of the group in a natural way. So he would act out to get attention in weird ways…. He had no sense of normalcy.”

As a young adult, Ivins struck others as painfully strait-laced. “Sort of a Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes,” recalled microbiologist Priscilla Wyrick, who hired him in 1975 as a lab researcher at Chapel Hill. Occasionally, colleagues glimpsed a scarier side of him.

After he discovered that a doctoral student working across the hall, Lori Babcock, had been active in Kappa Kappa Gamma, Ivins startled her one night with a spot-on recitation of the group’s secret initiation rituals. Then he pressed her for further details about the sorority.

“The hair on the back of my neck went right up,” Babcock recalled.

By late 1978, Ivins, then 32, and his wife, Diane, had moved to suburban Maryland. But he remained fixated on Nancy Haigwood, a married UNC student studying for her doctorate in microbiology.

Haigwood mentored younger members of Kappa Kappa Gamma at Chapel Hill, and Ivins resented that she had spurned his attempts to forge a friendship. She found him “cloyingly nice,” an oddball who craved constant attention.

In the spring of 1979, Haigwood suffered a career-threatening misfortune.

Everything that she had strived so hard for hinged on converting the data in her lab notebook into her doctoral dissertation. She kept the notebook, filled with hand-recorded hypotheses, results of experiments and other records of her scientific work, in a locked room in a lab building.

Suddenly, it was gone.

After a couple of days of agony, Haigwood received an anonymous note, saying the prized notebook could be found at a certain street mailbox in Chapel Hill. Police found it there and returned it to Haigwood. Many years later, Ivins would admit to the FBI what Haigwood had long suspected — that he was the thief.

Near his new place of work, the Defense Department‘s Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., Ivins spilled out his feelings about Haigwood to a psychiatrist, Dr. Naomi Heller. He said he experienced Haigwood’s brush-off as a replay of his mother’s mockery of him during childhood.

Ivins confided that he had thought through plans to kill Haigwood.

In December 1980, Ivins, then 34, was hired as a civilian microbiologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Md. Amid fresh suspicion that Soviet scientists were creating biological weapons, Ivins would be assigned to grow and purify anthrax and test whether the Army’s vaccine would protect military personnel and the public.

Without any evaluation of Ivins’ psychiatric fitness, he was granted a “secret” level security clearance.

The Army knew very little about this man it had entrusted with one of the world’s most dangerous microorganisms. One night not long after he was hired, he drove about three hours to West Virginia University, where Kappa Kappa Gamma had a chapter.

Ivins entered the house through a ground-floor window, forced open a locked cabinet and found Kappa’s Book of Ritual, the complete compendium of its passwords and secrets. Since he already had the cipher, he would be able to decode all of the sorority’s rituals.

At work, Ivins was thriving. He led research to develop an anthrax vaccine envisioned as superior to the existing one. Patent documents would list him as a co-inventor of this genetically engineered vaccine, putting him in line for career-crowning recognition if the product was a success — not to mention lucrative royalties if circumstances ever created a surge in demand.

He resented that the Pentagon did not spend more to develop the product — and he grew angry when troubles surrounding the old vaccine threatened the entire program.

Away from the lab, he continued to pursue bizarre vendettas.

On May 9, 1983, the Frederick News-Post in Maryland published a letter Ivins had written and signed “Nancy L. Haigwood.”

“As a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma,” Ivins wrote, “I am continually dismayed by attempts of the media and other outsiders to disparage the Greek system. I am especially incensed at vitriolic attacks on our practices of ‘hazing,’ which non-Greeks fail to realize serve numerous valuable functions…. No matter what the press may say about us, I’m still proud to be in a sorority.”

Ivins took the ruse a perverse step further. He mailed a copy of the published letter to a woman whose 20-year-old son had died in a fraternity hazing incident. Eileen Stevens of Sayville, N.Y., had come to his attention through her efforts to raise awareness about hazing abuses.

Ivins also enclosed a personal missive in his own name in which he disparaged Haigwood and pressed Stevens to send him any information she might have about abuses within Kappa Kappa Gamma.

In another letter to Stevens, Ivins feigned renewed outrage about Haigwood’s supposed comments. “I have personally gotten into several arguments about hazing with fraternity and sorority members, who have privately said that since I was not ‘Greek’ I had no right to criticize hazing,” Ivins wrote Stevens on May 26, 1986, adding: “I wonder if only murderers have the right to criticize murderers, only Communists have the right to criticize Communists, only terrorists have the right to criticize terrorists.”

His public self gave no hint of his private turmoil. Ivins appeared to lead a harmonious life: a successful scientist, married with two children and a home in a nice neighborhood. Yet over the years, he sought help from psychiatrists and counselors and was prescribed a battery of antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs.

A psychiatrist who treated him in the late 1990s, Dr. David Irwin, confided to a therapist that Ivins was the “scariest” patient he had ever known.

Army officials seemed oblivious to his instability — even if he was not. In emails to his current and former lab technicians, Ivins described disturbing thoughts and impulses and said he was struggling to control his behavior.

On July 18, 2000, Ivins told a mental health counselor that he had recently planned to poison his former assistant, Mara Linscott. In addition to having cyanide, he said that he had once obtained ammonium nitrate, to make a bomb.

He saw himself, Ivins said, as an “avenging angel of death.”

After the anthrax letters were mailed in September and October of 2001, the FBI for nearly five years pursued a former Army virologist, Steven Hatfill, as the prime suspect.

Hatfill had filled several prescriptions in 2001 for Cipro, an antibiotic effective against anthrax, among other infections. He had also boasted of his expertise in biological warfare.

Based on this and other information, inspector Richard Lambert, handpicked by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to lead the investigation, was convinced that Hatfill was the perpetrator. With Mueller’s backing, he drove his agents to find evidence to support an indictment against Hatfill. It never came.

On June 5, 2006, a visiting team of FBI employees arrived at the bureau’s Washington Field Office for a long-scheduled audit of its general efficiency and effectiveness. A growing number of investigators were frustrated by Lambert’s emphasis on Hatfill. They had felt powerless to do anything about it. Until now.

In a confidential report, the inspection team said more than 90% of the investigators on the anthrax case believed Lambert was concentrating on Hatfill to the exclusion of all other potential suspects. Lambert said the focus was never on one individual, exclusively.

In September 2006, Mueller replaced Lambert with two agents who had extensive backgrounds in criminal investigation, Edward Montooth and Vincent Lisi. A case that had foundered for years was reoriented: Investigators were told to focus on people who had verifiable access to a research batch of anthrax that geneticists had matched to the material used in the letter attacks.

On the Friday before Christmas 2006, Montooth and Lisi went to FBI headquarters for a briefing with the director.

“You’ve been there three months,” Mueller reminded Montooth. “What’s going on?”

Trying his best to keep expectations modest, Montooth let Mueller in on some news: “There’s a guy that we can’t wash out, no matter what we’re doing. It makes us more suspicious.”

The object of suspicion was an Army microbiologist who had created the batch of anthrax that matched the material in the letters. He had unrestricted access to this batch, and he had put in unusually long, solitary hours at the biocontainment lab, or “hot suite,” at USAMRIID during the nights leading up to the mailings.

His name, Montooth said, was Bruce Ivins.

On the evening of Wednesday, July 9, 2008, Ivins arrived at Comprehensive Counseling Associates in Frederick, Md., for his weekly group therapy session. He was noticeably agitated. FBI agents had by now questioned him at length, and his lawyers expected he could soon be charged with murder in connection with the anthrax mailings.

When it was his turn to speak, Ivins, 62, said he was angry at the investigators and at the system that had dealt him this hand. He had a bulletproof vest and was going to obtain a new Glock handgun, he said. He had a list of people he was planning to kill.

“I’m not going to go down for five capital murders,” he said. “I’m going to get them all.”

The next day, police escorted Ivins out of Ft. Detrick, and he spent about two weeks at a psychiatric hospital near Baltimore before returning to his home in Frederick.

At 1:47 a.m. on Sunday, July 27, an ambulance rushed Ivins from his home to the emergency room at Frederick Memorial Hospital. He was comatose. Blood tests indicated a massive overdose of Tylenol. A few hours after he was admitted, Ivins showed responsiveness to those around him.

An intensive care nurse, Megan Shinabery, asked him: “Did you intentionally try to commit suicide?” Her handwritten notes reflect Ivins’ response: “pt nodded yes.”

Two days later, Ivins was dead.

On Aug. 6, 2008, eight days after his death, federal investigators announced that Ivins, acting alone, had perpetrated the anthrax mailings. Two days later, a prosecutor signed a letter to Steven Hatfill’s lawyer, exonerating his client of any wrongdoing. The government paid Hatfill a $5.82-million legal settlement.

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