WASHINGTON (AFP) — A US government scientist has committed suicide just as he was about to be charged in the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks that sparked widespread panic in the United States, US media reported Friday.
Bruce Ivins, 62, had worked for 18 years at the US biodefense research laboratories at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where he prepared anthrax used in vaccine experiments, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Prosecutors were mulling whether to seek the death penalty against Ivins, who was never publicly named as a suspect in the seven-year-old case that left five people dead and spooked the country just weeks after the September 11 attacks, The Washington Post reported.
The Justice Department, the FBI, and the US Postal Inspection Service issued a joint statement announcing "significant developments" in the case, but giving few details.
"We are able to confirm that substantial progress has been made in the investigation by bringing to bear new and sophisticated scientific tools," the statement read.
It added: "We are unable to provide additional information at this time."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that President George W. Bush "was aware that there... have been developments" in the anthrax case, but also gave no further details.
Ivins' attorney, Paul Kemp, confirmed the investigation and asserted his client's innocence.
"For more than a year, we have been privileged to represent Dr. Bruce Ivins during the investigation of the anthrax deaths of September and October of 2001," Kemp said in a statement.
"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. We assert his innocence in these killings, and would have established that at trial," he said.
Ivins was a world-renowned scientist who had "fully cooperated" with the investigation for six years, assisting the government "in every way that was asked of him," the attorney said.
"The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people, as has already been seen in this investigation," Kemp said.
"In Dr. Ivins' case, it led to his untimely death. We ask that the media respect the privacy of his family, and allow them to grieve."
Ivins's death came a month after the Justice Department paid a former "person of interest" in the case, Steven Hatfill, a bioweapons expert who once worked at Fort Detrick, almost six million dollars in a settlement over the FBI's public pursuit of him.
Soon after the Hatfill settlement, Ivins' access to sensitive areas at work was limited, the Los Angeles Times reported, adding that he was to be forced to retire in September.
The Times said Ivins had been informed of "impending prosecution" in connection with the case, citing sources familiar with the FBI investigation.
Five people died after handling anthrax-tainted letters that were addressed to prominent politicians and journalists in the deadliest bio-terrorism attack in US history.
Ivins had even helped the Federal Bureau of Investigation analyze one of the envelopes filled with anthrax spores sent to a US senator's office in Washington.
His death on Tuesday, with no mention of suicide, was announced to his former colleagues in an email, the Times reported.
"People here are pretty shook up about it," Caree Vander Linden, a spokeswoman for the agency where he worked, was quoted as saying.
A friend told the Times Ivins died of an overdose of prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine and a former coworker said he had been treated for depression and had threatened suicide.
One of his two brothers, Thomas Ivins, told the Times he was not surprised by the suicide.
"He buckled under the pressure from the federal government," Thomas Ivins said, adding that FBI agents came to Ohio last year to question him about his brother.
"I was questioned by the feds, and I sung like a canary" about Bruce Ivins' personality, Thomas Ivins said. "He had in his mind that he was omnipotent."
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