One week after the September 11 attacks on New York City, another devastating terrorist attack targeted our people. On September 18, 2001, letters were mailed to several news stations and senators. The FBI organized a task force titled Amerithrax to hunt down whoever was responsible and bring them to justice.
As the case progressed it became a media circus, and the stakes were never higher. The FBI themselves called it “one of the largest and most complex in the history of law enforcement.” Across the United States, law enforcement took a stand against terror and through great personal risk took on a killer with the ability to murder millions.
Our greatest fear had come to pass, the FBI found mounting evidence pointing towards one of America’s top research facilities. The worst biological attack in US history was not al-Qaeda — it was an inside job.
September 18, 2001 – Five letters are believed to have been mailed to ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, and the New York Post, all located in New York City, and to the National Enquirer at American Media, Inc. (AMI) in Boca Raton, Florida.
October 5, 2001 – The first fatal recipient of the anthrax letters was admitted into the hospital with pulmonary problems. Robert ‘Bob’ Stevens reported having symptoms similar to the flu. Doctors believed he had meningitis, but after the doctors completed further testing, it was discovered that he had developed pulmonary anthrax. His death was the first death from anthrax in 25 years. He had come into contact with anthrax through the letter that was mailed to him at American Media in Boca Raton, Florida.
October 9, 2001 – Two more anthrax letters were addressed to two Democratic senators, Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
At least 22 people developed anthrax infections, half from inhaling the deadly bacteria. Five died from inhaling anthrax.
A media circus criticizing the FBI’s inability to bring the investigation to a close placed intense pressure to deliver. The letters and mailboxes were examined in forensic laboratories, the killer left no DNA evidence, and the FBI labs were not equipped at that time to handle the deadly anthrax bacteria.
The FBI sent their evidence to be held at Fort Detrick in the USAMRIDD bio-weapons lab. They wanted to run a series of tests to identify where the anthrax was created. It was a sophisticated strain because for anthrax spores to be seen as a white powder, they would need the support of a state-funded program for the expensive drying process. The US suspected that Iran or Iraq could be capable of sponsoring terrorists with the weapon.
During this time the Bureau followed up on suspects and made very public raids on Steven Hatfill’s property. He was a bio-weapons expert and (at the time) the primary suspect of the investigation. He refused to be strong-armed into producing a confession and defended himself publicly in the media. He was eventually exonerated.
The FBI looked into another expert, Dr. Bruce Edwards Ivins as another potential suspect. Colleagues of his reported that he had an unusual interest in anthrax and was working extra hours on an unauthorized project. The FBI confirmed the increased activity in August, September, and October. The irony was that he worked at the very lab where the FBI first went to seek help for the investigation, Fort Detrick.
RMR-1029 is the evidence flask that tested positive for AMES, the strain of anthrax used in American laboratories, specifically Fort Detrick. His tests came back negative at the original testing, but when the FBI tested them again, they returned as positive. The FBI believed they caught him trying to intentionally deceive them.
November 1, 2007 – The FBI executes a search warrant of his property and interviews Ivins’ family.
The FBI continued their strong-armed tactics to get a confession out of Dr. Ivins. The pressure of surveillance was so intense that he had a psychotic break during a group therapy session. He stated that he had had enough and was going to go out in a blaze of glory. He had a gun and was going to go into work and shoot all his coworkers and everybody who wronged him. He was arrested the next day.
Two weeks later he was released and returned home. He committed suicide by overdosing on Tylenol PM and died in the hospital four days later from liver and kidney failure.