When the FBI was scrambling to unravel the 2001 anthrax attacks, one of the first scientists they turned to for help was Bruce E. Ivins, a veteran researcher at the U.S. Army bioweapons lab in Fort Detrick, Md. But last week, the protracted anthrax probe took its most bizarre turn yet: Ivins was found unconscious in his bathroom and later died of an apparent self-inflicted drug overdose—just as agents were about to charge him with sending the tainted letters that killed five people. Ivins, a devout churchgoer who played the keyboard at Sunday services, recently had been committed to a psychiatric hospital, and had allegedly made death threats against a social worker. In her protective order, the social worker, Jean Duley, wrote that Ivins has a history of "homicidal threats, actions, plans." She added: "FBI involved, currently under investigation & will be charged w/ 5 capital murders."
For years, the Department of Justice pursued another researcher, Steven Hatfill, but he was finally exonerated in June when he received a legal settlement of $5.8 million after accusing the government of violating his privacy. Following Ivins's death, Justice issued only a terse statement noting recent "significant developments" in the case. According to a source who was briefed on the matter, but who requested anonymity while the evidence remains sealed, the FBI began zeroing in on Ivins some time ago thanks to an "earth-shattering scientific breakthrough" which enabled agents to identify the precise origin of the anthrax spores used in the attacks. Another former U.S. official, who also requested anonymity, confirmed the chain of events. Ivins's own behavior fueled suspicions: according to the Los Angeles Times, he acknowledged misleading investigators by failing to report anthrax contaminations in his work area shortly after the letters were mailed.
If he was guilty, his motive remains a mystery. According to one of NEWSWEEK's sources, investigators theorize that Ivins may have mailed the letters as a "wake-up call" for the country about the dangers of a bio-attack. Paul Kemp, a lawyer who had been appointed to represent Ivins, said the "relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo … led to [Ivins's] untimely death" and that Ivins was prepared to defend his "innocence" at trial.