Image: Hazmat unit searches for anthrax
AP File
A hazardous materials unit worker is hosed down on Capitol Hill, Oct. 23, 2001, where officials continued inspecting buildings and offices for anthrax contamination.
updated 8/3/2008 7:56:43 PM ET 2008-08-03T23:56:43

DNA taken from the bodies of people killed in the 2001 anthrax attacks helped lead investigators to Bruce Ivins, who oversaw the highly specific type of toxin in an Army lab, a government scientist said Sunday.

Using new genome technology, researchers looked at samples of cells from the victims to identify the kind of anthrax Ames strain that killed them, the scientist said. They noticed very subtle differences in the DNA of the strain used in the attacks than in other types of Ames anthrax.

With that, investigators linked the specific type of anthrax back to Ivins' biological weapons lab at Ft. Detrick in Frederick, Md., where he oversaw its use and handling for research.

"It had to do with the very specific characteristics in the DNA of the letters and what was in Bruce's labs," said the government scientist, who is close to the investigation. "They were cultures he was personally responsible for."

The scientist spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.

Solid break
The scientific discovery gave the FBI its first solid break in one of the nation's most high-profile unsolved crimes after years of pointing the finger at the wrong suspect. Combined with other evidence, the Justice Department is expected to close the case this week, concluding Ivins was the mastermind and sole criminal behind the attacks that killed five and sickened 17 others in the weeks following 9/11.

Ivins killed himself last week as prosecutors prepared to indict him on murder charges.

Dozens of other researchers in Ivins' lab also had access to the type of Ames strain used in the attacks, the scientist said, meaning the DNA alone is not enough to prove his guilt.

Investigators have said they used other evidence to build the case against Ivins, including looking at who had access to the poison or the labs at the specific time it was mailed. Those details are expected to be spelled out in sealed court documents that are expected to be released this week if the Justice Department ends the investigation, possibly as early as Monday or Tuesday.

A senior law enforcement official said Sunday that victims' families were waiting to be briefed at FBI headquarters in Washington as soon as prosecutors agree to end the investigation.

Although the Army lab where Ivins worked had long been on the FBI's radar, scientists were unable to pinpoint the specific strain used in the attacks until about a year ago.

The FBI recruited top genome researchers from across the country and encouraged them to do groundbreaking work to identify and isolate the type of anthrax in the attacks. At least $10 million was spent on the research in what the scientist called the FBI's most expensive and scientifically compelling case to date.

The new genome technology that tracked down Ivins was either not available or too expensive to use often until about three years ago. It also looked at the DNA of the anthrax still in the envelopes that began showing up at congressional offices, newsrooms and post offices soon after Sept. 11, 2001.

The scientist said the FBI knew the DNA evidence linked Ivins to the attacks for at least a year. However, prosecutors worried that because the genome technology was so new, it might be questioned and eventually thrown out if the case against Ivins ever went to trial. Researchers tested it for many more months to make sure its conclusions were reliable.

Even so, its use in the anthrax case will probably spark scientific debate on how strongly it can be used to help solve crimes, the scientist said.

He predicted few would be able to argue with its conclusions — namely, identifying the type of Ames strain used. Still, the scientist said, some researchers will probably note the DNA does not alone give the government a smoking gun or other surefire case-closer.

Ivins was portrayed as a conflicted, troubled man. His friends knew him as the man who played the keyboard at church, a Red Cross volunteer who was an avid juggler and gardener.

Others saw a darker side. Police recently removed him from work, fearing he was a danger to himself or others. Social worker Jean C. Duley filed for a restraining order in a Maryland court.

"Client has a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, plans and actions towards therapists," Duley wrote in court documents last week, adding that his psychiatrist had described him as homicidal and sociopathic.

The late microbiologist told his psychotherapist after learning he was about to be indicted that "he was going to go out in a blaze of glory, that he was going to take everybody out with him," she said.

Duley also said Ivins left her a telephone message in mid-July, after she had alerted police to his threats, telling her that that her actions had made it possible for the FBI "to now be able to prosecute him for the murders."

Duley testified at a Frederick County District Court hearing July 24 in a successful bid for a protective order from Ivins. The New York Times obtained a recording of the hearing and posted on its Web site Saturday.

Duley testified that Ivins had tried to poison people even before the 2001 attacks.

"As far back as the year 2000, the respondent has actually attempted to murder several other people. ... He is a revenge killer," Duley said.

She added that Ivins "has been forensically diagnosed by several top psychiatrists as a sociopathic, homicidal killer. I have that in evidence. And through my working with him, I also believe that to be very true."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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