A leading U.S. Army microbiologist, identified as the target of a federal grand jury investigation in the FBI's seven-year probe of the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and sickened 17 others, has committed suicide, law enforcement authorities and others said Friday.
Bruce E. Ivins, 62, who was developing vaccines against the deadly toxin and had worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., for the past 35 years, is believed to have taken a fatal overdose of a prescription-strength form of the painkiller Tylenol mixed with codeine.
A 2003 recipient of the Pentagon's Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest honor given to civilian Pentagon employees, Mr. Ivins, who lived in Frederick, Md., died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital. He was a colleague at the Fort Detrick facility of Stephen J. Hatfill's, the former Army scientist who once was identified by the FBI as a "person of interest" in the anthrax investigation.
Mr. Ivins had been told of the FBI investigation, said his lawyer, Paul F. Kemp of Rockville.
"We are saddened by his death, and disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to defend his good name and reputation in a court of law," Mr. Kemp said in a statement. "We assert his innocence in these killings, and would have established that at trial."
Mr. Kemp attributed the death of his client to the government's "relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo."
The Justice Department, in a brief statement along with the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, pointed only to "significant developments" in the anthrax investigation but made no mention of Mr. Ivins or his death.
It said only that it was able to confirm that "substantial progress has been made in the investigation by bringing to bear new and sophisticated scientific tools," but offered no elaboration.
"We are unable to provide additional information at this time. The department, the FBI and the USPIS have significant obligations to the victims of these attacks and their families that must be fulfilled before any additional information on the investigation can be made public. In addition, investigative documents remain under court seal," the Justice Department said. "We anticipate being able to provide additional details in the near future."
The FBI investigation, known as "Amerithrax," has been described by the bureau as one of the most complex and comprehensive ever conducted by law enforcement. Over the past seven years, it said, the Amerithrax Task Force, comprised of 17 FBI special agents and 10 postal inspectors, has executed 75 searches and conducted more than 9,100 interviews "in the relentless pursuit" of those responsible for the attacks.
As a microbiologist, Mr. Ivins had worked for several years on the development of vaccines for anthrax and had gained access to various strains of the bacteria. His expertise in the field resulted in a call from federal authorities for help in analyzing the powder used in the attacks.
In August 2003, Mr. Hatfill filed a lawsuit against Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department, the FBI and several Justice and FBI officials, including FBI Supervisory Special Agent Van Harp, who headed the anthrax probe, claiming the investigation had ruined his reputation. In June, he was exonerated by the government, and the Justice Department agreed to pay $5.8 million to settle the lawsuit.
The FBI's anthrax investigation began in October 2001 after Congress became one of the targets in the first bioterrorist attack on the United States. A letter laced with the deadly bacterium was addressed to then-Sen. Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who served as Senate majority leader.
Anthrax-tainted letters ultimately killed five persons in the United States and infected 17 others.
A co-worker, Dr. W. Russell Byrne, who worked in the bacteriology division at Fort Detrick, told reporters that Mr. Ivins had been "hounded" by FBI agents who raided his home twice and had been removed forcefully from his job by local police over fears that he had become a danger to himself or others.
Dr. Byrne said the ongoing investigation led last month to Mr. Ivins' hospitalization for depression. He said he did not believe that Mr. Ivins was involved in the anthrax attacks.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and one among a number of members of Congress who had serious questions about the anthrax investigation, said Friday he was "looking forward to getting more detailed information about these reports directly from the FBI and other sources.
"It's been frustrating that the FBI has essentially shut out Congress throughout its seven-year investigation. Now seems to be the opportune time for the bureau to brief Congress about whether the case is to be closed and justice will be served," Mr. Grassley said.
"If it is, we must thoroughly examine the reasons why," he said. "In the meantime, we should remember that a rush to judgment can be dangerous and expensive for everyone. The last person the FBI had in its sights in this case suffered for six years and just collected a $6 million settlement"
In December 2006 letter, 33 members of Congress described as "inappropriate" a decision by the FBI to refuse congressional requests for information on the investigation and criticized the bureau for a blanket prohibition on anthrax briefings because of concerns over the potential disclosure of sensitive information.
Mr. Grassley said at the time that the FBI was seeking to "thwart the constitutional responsibility of Congress" and that the bureau's refusal to provide briefings to Congress following the 2001 anthrax attacks appeared to be "the rule rather than the exception."
Rep. Rush D. Holt, New Jersey Democrat who was at the forefront of efforts to get information on the anthrax probe, said the attacks had harmed the "heath and livelihoods of my constituents and paralyzed the government and national commerce." He said Americans deserved to know why the investigation "had made so little progress."
Tom LoBianco contributed to this article.