MIAMI – The widow of a Florida tabloid photo editor who died in the 2001 anthrax mailings is casting fresh doubt on the FBI's conclusion that a lone federal scientist staged the attacks, according to new documents filed in her lawsuit against the government.
Maureen Stevens' change of position is based on sworn statements made by two of the scientist's superiors who said they don't believe Bruce Ivins was solely to blame for the attacks that killed five people, including her husband Robert Stevens, and sickened 17 others in fall 2001. The anthrax was mailed to locations in New York, Florida and Washington, D.C., including a Senate office building.
The Justice Department formally closed the anthrax investigation and pinned the crimes on Ivins on Feb. 19, 2010. Ivins committed suicide by taking a Tylenol overdose in 2008 as the investigation closed in around him.
The statements raising questions about the FBI's conclusions were made in depositions earlier this year by W. Russell Byrne and Gerard Andrews, who oversaw Ivins' work at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. Byrne was chief of bacteriology at the biodefense lab from 1998 to early 2000 and Andrews held the post from 2000 to 2003.
According to court documents, Byrne told Stevens' attorneys that Ivins "did not have the lab skills to make the fine powdered anthrax used in the letters" and that it would have been difficult for Ivins to do the work at night undetected. Byrne said others would have noticed the unusual use of equipment and supplies because of the hazardous microbes involved in their work.
"They pay attention to things because your lack of observation could cost you your life," Byrne said, according to the documents.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Byrne said he knew Ivins for 15 years and remains unconvinced he was capable of such crimes.
"It just wasn't the Bruce Ivins that I knew," said Byrne, who retired in 2003 and still lives in Frederick.
Andrews, the other superior, told lawyers it would have taken Ivins six months to a year to refine the anthrax spores used in the deadly mailings, instead of the roughly 20 hours the FBI found he spent at night in the lab. Andrews also said Ivins did not have the expertise to do the work and some of the necessary equipment wasn't available at Fort Detrick at the time.
Andrews added that in the 16 years he knew Ivins, there was no indication "that he understood the weaponization technology of anthrax spores, nor did any of his colleagues ever talk to me about his interest or understanding" of the processes required.
"Dr. Andrews stated in his opinion, it would take more than one person to achieve this attack because of the unusual physical characteristics of the powders," the court document said.
Both scientists have raised doubts before about Ivins' guilt in media interviews and other forums, but the depositions are different because the statements are made under oath. Andrews, now a professor of veterinary sciences and microbiology at the University of Wyoming, did not respond to an email seeking further comment.
After obtaining these statements, Stevens' lawyers successfully argued to a federal judge that she should be allowed to withdraw from her previous agreement with lawyers for the U.S. that Ivins was solely to blame so her attorneys could use the new evidence at trial. Attorneys for the federal government didn't object and her motion was granted April 14.
The change means Stevens' attorneys are now free to take additional statements and search for other evidence that might conflict with the FBI's conclusion.
Her lawsuit, originally filed in 2003 and seeking as much as $50 million in damages, accuses the U.S. government of negligence by failing to safeguard the dangerous strains of anthrax at Fort Detrick. Robert Stevens worked in Boca Raton at American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer, Sun, and Globe tabloids, when he was exposed to anthrax. His death Oct. 5, 2001, was the first in the attacks.
Trial is currently scheduled for Dec. 5 before Senior U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley in West Palm Beach.
The FBI has repeatedly insisted that Ivins is responsible for the deadly anthrax. A statement on the FBI web site notes that the "Amerithrax" case, as it was dubbed by the FBI, involved more than 25 full-time investigators who conducted 10,000 witness interviews, executed about 80 search warrants, recovering 6,000 items of evidence in one of the most sophisticated investigations in history.
"The Amerithrax investigation found that the late Dr. Bruce Ivins acted alone in planning and executing these attacks," the FBI statement said.
In addition, a court-ordered psychiatric analysis of Ivins' behavior and medical records concluded earlier this year that security screeners missed numerous signs of his "deteriorating emotional and physical condition" and that he had significant, long-term psychological problems that should have disqualified him from access to the anthrax spores.
Hurley has refused U.S. government attempts to get the case dismissed, and his rulings were upheld by an appeals court.
FBI Anthrax Investigation: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/history/famous-cases/anthrax-amerithrax/amerithrax-investigation
Anderson can be reached at http://twitter.com/Miamicurt