JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – One of the men under scrutiny by the FBI's anthrax investigation is a former U.S. soldier who bragged about ties to a feared counterinsurgency force that fought for the white minority government of Rhodesia.
The FBI has identified Dr. Steven J. Hatfill as one of 30 scientists and researchers with the expertise and opportunity to conduct the anthrax attacks.
FBI and Postal Service agents wearing protective gloves searched his apartment in Frederick, Md., for the second time last week. A senior U.S. law enforcement official said the agenpreliminary review.
Investigators have not classified him as a suspect, only as a "person of interest."
Hatfill, 48, worked until 1999 for Fort Detrick's Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which is the primary custodian of the virulent Ames strain of anthrax found in last fall's deadly letters.
Hatfill and another scientist, Joseph Soukup, commissioned a study of a hypothetical anthrax attack in February 1999 as employees of defense contractor Science Applications International Corp., said Ben Haddad, spokesman for the San Diego-based company.
Before he worked there, Hatfill spent about 15 years in southern Africa, where he earned a string of academic degrees and disturbed many of his colleagues with his right-wing rhetoric and what appear to be tall tales of a heroic military career.
"He seems to have a Walter Mitty complex," said Edward Rybicki, who met Hatfill at the University of Cape Town, where Hatfill studied microbiology from 1987 to 1988.
Former colleagues recounted elaborate tales of heroism Hatfill told them.
He claimed to have served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and was discharged after his plane was shot down and he broke his back. However, his military record showed none of that to be true.
He joined the military in 1975, as Vietnam was ending and was discharged in 1978.
In a 1997 resume, Hatfill claimed to be a member of the special forces. But Walter Solkowski, spokesman at Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, said Hatfill attended special forces training in 1976 but failed after a month. "He flunked. He was in training for only about 30 days," Solkowski said.
After completing his military service, Hatfill went to Rhodesia, where many former U.S. soldiers worked as mercenaries for the Selous Scouts, a military force that fought black rebels in an effort to maintain white rule in the southern African nation. Their efforts failed, and the country became black-led Zimbabwe in 1980.
Hatfill later bragged about serving with the Rhodesian Special Air Service and the Selous Scouts. Sources linked to Rhodesian security forces have no memory of him.
"He would talk about running around in the bush and throwing grenades in Zimbabwe and that sort of thing," Rybicki said. He also boasted about shooting grenades into the Zimbabwe offices of the African National Congress, which was fighting to overthrow white rule in South Africa, Rybicki said.
Hatfill graduated from the University of Zimbabwe Medical School in Harare in 1983.
The anthrax letters had a return address of the "Greendale School." A school in Harare known as the Greendale School was actually named for Courtney Selous, a famed white hunter and the namesake of the Selous Scouts.
Hatfill has denied being involved with the anthrax mailings and has complained that the media attention led to his firing from a defense contractor.
Because of the FBI investigations, he was recently put on paid administrative leave for 30 days by Louisiana State University's National Center for Biomedical Research and Training -- where he worked as an associate director.
Two attorneys for Hatfill, Victor Glasberg and Jonathan Shapiro of Alexandria, Va., did not immediately return calls for comment on the case.
From Zimbabwe, Hatfill moved on to studies in South Africa, earning a master's degree in microbiology from University of Cape Town, as well as a master's in medical biochemistry and a degree in hematology from the University of Stellenbosch.
Hatfill's resume reportedly indicated he received a Ph.D in molecular cellular biology from Rhodes University in South Africa. University officials, however, said he never completed that doctorate degree.
Several of his colleagues described Hatfill as bright, but abrasive and difficult to work with.
"He was unpopular because he just did not respect other people's lives and their work and their needs in the lab," said Lothar Bohm, professor of medicine at Stellenbosch. "He was the sort of person who would go in the labs late at night at take pieces of equipment without asking."
Colleagues said Hatfill was fanatically patriotic and wanted to return to the United States to realize his longtime dream of joining NASA and traveling to Mars.
He used to wear combat boots on his jogs around Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., where he received a bachelor's degree in 1975, said Bob Wimmer, Hatfill's biology professor there.
"He was very patriotic. The kids referred to him as GI Joe occasionally," said Wimmer.
Rybicki said he doubts Hatfill was responsible for the anthrax contaminations. "The man wants to go to Mars, not make war on the U.S. I think it runs completely counter to what I know of the man," he said.