In the weeks following the attacks on September 11, 2001, news in the United States had been a frenzy of speculation about who had been responsible for the deadliest day in US history and the call for US troops to invade the Middle East. Amid this chaos and confusion, a second terrorist attack had been occurring right under our noses. It would be nearly a month after the world watched the towers of the World Trade Center come crashing to the ground in their own footprint before anyone would learn of the second attack that even today remains shrouded in mystery.
On September 18, 2001, envelopes filled with an odd brownish powder were addressed to major media outlets including NBC, CBS, ABC, The New York Post, and The National Enquirer and dropped off at a mailbox in Trenton, New Jersey. It would be another week before these envelopes would arrive at their intended destinations.
These odd mailings went mostly ignored. No one reported anything strange until early October when a photo editor employed by a subsidiary of The National Enquirer tested positive for anthrax. Though photo editor Robert Stevens would have to be hospitalized and would subsequently die the following day, no one connected Stevens’ prognosis with the mysterious envelopes.
The news of Stevens’ illness made the national news between footage of the twin towers crashing to the ground and news of the war in Afghanistan. Government officials held a press conference, stating that there had been no evidence to suggest that Stevens’ anthrax poisoning had been the result of a terrorist attack and calmed any fears anyone may have had at the time by stating that the illness was an isolated incident and that it was not contagious.
It was later learned that along with the anthrax spores, each envelope contained a note written by the sender. In an envelope recovered by the FBI from the offices of The New York Post the letter read:
“this is next / take penacilin now / death to america / death to israel / allah is great.“
The government’s narrative of an isolated incident would officially come crumbling apart in mid-October when two more letters were received. Then-majority-leader Tom Daschle’s intern, Grant Leslie, would be the next known unfortunate victim. Upon opening the letter a plume of baby powder-like dust filled the air and Leslie would have to be hospitalized. She would be the first known victim of a more potent form of the anthrax spores, refined specifically to enter the body through inhalation.
Most of those impacted by the letters weren’t the media personalities or government officials the sender had been intending to target. It would be the postal workers tasked with sorting and routing these letters who would become the most threatened by the attack. As these tainted letters made their way from sorting center to sorting center, a number of those who came into direct contact with them would be hospitalized, with several losing their battle against the illness.
The FBI carefully collected all of the letters and drove them to Fort Detrick, which housed the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the military’s leading experts in biodefense. After analysis from experts at the Institute, it was determined that the spores were not homegrown and must have originated from a lab.
Bruce Ivins, the facility’s leading expert in anthrax, was agasp by the powdered anthrax samples he was tasked with examining. Ivins, who had typically dealt with wet specimens, was perplexed by the powdered anthrax synthesized to react like a gas, putting everyone in the facility at risk.
Ivins was eager to help with the investigation and had even volunteered his strains of anthrax to be tested in order to determine where the potent powder had originated from. By then, five people had perished as a result of the attack, while another 22 people had fallen ill. Ivins hoped that by tracing the DNA profile of the spores he could pinpoint the facility and help the FBI nab their culprit.
Seven years after praising Ivins’ work, the investigation would turn on its head when Ivins would become a suspect in the case. For two years the FBI hounded Ivins until he took his own life. Officially the case is closed. The FBI speculated that Ivins’ motive for the attack had been rooted in frustrations over his work with the anthrax vaccine.
Ivins had failed a number of trials to produce a vaccine potent enough to meet FDA approval. This jeopardized not only soldiers out on the front lines, but researchers like Ivins, himself. If he failed to be granted FDA approval then he and other researchers would be unable to continue their anthrax research.
During this time, Ivins had also been under media scrutiny. Several journalists had speculated that Ivins’ vaccines may have been making our soldiers on the frontlines sick and linking his vaccine research to the unexplainable Gulf War Syndrome.
In spite of the litany of circumstantial evidence the FBI used to connect the dots back to Ivins, many believe that he may have been an innocent man.
ProPublica, in collaboration with PBS’ Frontline, decided to conduct their own investigation into Ivins and his possible connection to the anthrax letters. In their report, they found that Ivins had submitted samples from three of his own spores, including one that investigators claim he intentionally tried to deceive them with. All of these samples contained genetic matches for the powder found in the letters, debunking claims that Ivins had been attempting to cover his tracks.
In the years prior to the investigation turning to Ivins, the FBI spent nearly $100,000 investigating former Army scientist Steven Hatfill. According to reports, Hatfill had taken the antibiotic Cipro close to the time of the mailing, an effective treatment for those suffering from anthrax poisoning. The US government was later forced to pay Hatfill a settlement of $5.8 million for falsely targeting him.
There is little doubt that Ivins was an eccentric man. Since his days of becoming a lab assistant at the University of Cincinnati, Ivins held an obsession with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. This obsession would drive Ivins to commit several crimes and stalk female coworkers he found had a connection to the sorority.
Ivins later told his therapist that he had planned to poison one of these coworkers after she turned down his advances. A plan that he would later abort.
Records show that in the weeks leading up to the mailings Ivins’ lab time had increased and rules at the time allowed Ivins to spend time in the lab alone to work on his research. Sometime prior to the attacks, prosecutors believe that Ivins may have taken a sample from the lab, a sample strain that he happened to have complete control over.
In order to transform the wet samples of the anthrax spores Ivins had in his possession to the powdered form contained within the letters, he would have had to take considerable time to do so. Spores would have to be propagated, requiring between 400 and 1,200 agar plates to accomplish this. He would then require some form of accelerated means to evaporate the liquid from the spores and transform the spores into their powdered form, exposing everyone who had access to the laboratory in the process.
Use of the lab’s fermenter, which has been noted by Ivins’ coworkers he was unskilled in using, would have been necessary to propagate the spores as quickly as possible. Without it, it would have taken between 30 and 50 weeks to produce the amount of powdered anthrax contained within the letters.
Meanwhile, FBI obtained a search warrant and began searching Ivins’ home. After a thorough investigation, not a single spore was found in the home. Highly unlikely if he had been working with the gas-like powder the letters contained.
With investigators closing in on Ivins he became increasingly more troubled. Speaking with a therapist, Ivins stated that he wanted to get a gun and kill his enemies. Ivins was later committed for these statements.
Several days after his release, Ivins grabbed a bottle of prescription medication and proceeded to take the entire contents of the bottle. He died three days later.
A week after Ivins’ suicide, prosecutors called a press conference. U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor told reporters,
“Based on the totality of the evidence we had gathered against him, we are confident that Dr. Ivins was the only person responsible for these attacks.”
The case was subsequently closed after Ivins’ suicide convinced investigators that they had their man.
“This was not an airtight case, by any means. You know, I think that, for an awful lot of people, there is a desire to really want to say that ‘yes, Ivins was the perpetrator. This case can reasonably be closed. And we can put this tragic chapter in U.S. history behind us,’ ” says Claire Fraser-Liggett, a genetic consultant who assisted in the case. “But I think part of what’s driving that is the fact that, if he wasn’t the perpetrator, then it means that person is still out there.”