- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

LUBBOCK, Texas — The Texas scientist accused of lying about missing vials of plague bacteria and inciting a bioterrorism alert in January faces more testimony from federal officials today as his trial enters its sixth day.

Dr. Thomas Butler, chief of the infectious-diseases division of the internal medicine department of Texas Tech University’s Health Science Center, faces 69 felony charges related to the scare that caused panic throughout a nation fearful that 30 vials of plague-causing bacteria from Tanzania might be in the hands of terrorists.

A day after Dr. Butler reported the vials had been stolen from his laboratory here, he told investigators that he had destroyed the vials himself.

The trial is expected to last for several more days. If convicted, Dr. Butler could face up to 469 years in prison.

Last week, government witnesses testified that they knew almost from the beginning that Dr. Butler was lying.

One federal agent testified that Dr. Butler’s carrying of the deadly viruses from Africa to western Texas was comparable to a drunk arriving home safely.

“Just because he arrived safely does not mean people were not at risk,” said FBI Agent Mike Orndorff.

Mr. Orndorff said Dr. Butler explained, after acknowledging that he had destroyed the vials, how he transported the bacteria from Africa to Lubbock.

The specimens from infected Tanzanians were placed in plastic test tubes that were screwed shut and bound with tape, the agent explained. These tubes then were wrapped in tissue paper and placed in plastic bottles that were packed inside a foot locker. Dr. Butler then checked the foot locker with his other luggage aboard American Airlines and British Airways flights.

The FBI agent said he asked Dr. Butler: “What might happen if they were crushed or damaged, or a baggage handler or someone else came in contact with the pathogens?”

He said Dr. Butler replied, “It could lead to serious illness or death.”

Dr. Butler, he added, told him he had never heard of any hazardous-materials laws and never followed such procedures.

The prosecution, however, presented evidence that Dr. Butler had been advised by the government and various pharmaceutical firms as to how such materials should be handled and protected. One letter indicated that Dr. Butler wrote to a doctor in India, describing how samples could be brought easily into the United States without detection.

FBI Agent Dale Green, one of the first investigators to reach Lubbock — before the government knew the scare was a hoax — testified that he thought Dr. Butler was lying almost from the beginning.

He said he arrived to interview the suspect Jan. 14 and said several entries in Dr. Butler’s lab notebook seemed contrived.

“He’s trying to convince the reader, rather than convey information,” Mr. Green said. “It’s a clear flag of deception to me.”

Mr. Green related how the government investigators, some of them unversed in scientific aspects of the case, relied on Dr. Butler for guidance. He said Dr. Butler seemed to enjoy the attention.

“He said that this kind of plague could be weaponized into a weapon of mass destruction within a 48-hour period and that it would kill everyone in the area,” Mr. Green recalled.


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