- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

LUBBOCK, Texas, Jan. 16 (UPI) — Federal prosecutors Thursday asked a magistrate to detain a Texas Tech researcher charged with making a false statement about missing bubonic plague bacteria.

U.S. Magistrate Nancy Koenig read the charge to Dr. Thomas C. Butler and then scheduled a detention hearing for next Tuesday. Butler will remain in jail until she rules on the government's request.

Floyd Holder, Butler's attorney, said outside the court that his client was innocent.

"My client is not guilty of those charges and he is looking for his opportunity to show a jury that he is innocent," he said.

Butler, who was arrested Wednesday night, admitted in a handwritten statement that he misled authorities, according to a federal complaint.

Butler allegedly told Texas Tech Health Sciences Center's laboratory safety officer that 30 vials of the plague bacteria were missing, when he knew they had been accidentally destroyed.

"I gave this explanation to demonstrate why I could not account for the plague bacteria that had been in my possession," he wrote.

The initial report of the missing bacteria sparked a national security scare but the FBI reported late Wednesday the vials had been "accounted for" though no further explanation was offered at the time.

FBI agents were among about 60 investigators who were assigned to check into the missing vials and Tom Ridge, nominated as the head of the Department of Homeland Security, was in contact with Mayor Marc McDougal and other officials in Lubbock.

Butler, who has been involved in plague research for more than 25 years, was the only person who legally had access to the vials, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported. The samples were used in research to determine the sensitivity of the plague bacteria to various antibiotics.

The FBI began an investigation Tuesday when an official at the health sciences center reported the vials were apparently missing.

Dr. David Smith, acting Texas Tech chancellor, said the university's security system worked in eventually accounting for the vials.

"I'm sorry we had to test the system here today, but we did and I will tell you I would certainly give it an A-plus with everybody pulling together," he said.

Smith said the plague bacteria used in the lab was not a "weaponized" version that could be used readily in a terrorist attack.

Butler, who heads the infections disease section, has an undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University and returned there for his residency and study in infectious diseases after obtaining his medical degree from Vanderbilt in 1967.

Experts said the bacteria used in the research at Texas Tech would not be a threat to large numbers of the population and the plague is a treatable disease.

Bubonic plague is an infectious disease of animals and humans caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Humans get plague from being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague or by handling an infected animal.

In the Middle Ages, millions died from plague in Europe when homes and places of work were inhabited by flea-infested rats. Modern antibiotics are effective against plague, but if untreated the disease is likely to cause illness or death.

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