From the Vault: Local scientist's hatred for UC sorority led to national panic, anthrax attack

Posted at 6:00 AM, Aug 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-03 07:43:24-04

LEBANON, Ohio -- You may know the name of Albert Sabin, the Children’s Hospital and University of Cincinnati pediatrician who developed the first oral polio vaccine

Sabin’s vaccine was distributed to every pre-schooler in Cincinnati in 1960 on what’s now revered as “Sabin Sunday.” The vaccine eventually wiped out one of the world’s most feared diseases.

More than 30 years after Sabin developed his vaccine, another local scientist developed a different lifesaving vaccine — the one for anthrax, a bacterial infection that can be fatal.

Bruce Ivins was a scientist for more than 30 years. The local of Lebanon and University of Cincinnati graduate was one of the scientists hired by the Pentagon to develop an anthrax vaccine for service members during the Gulf War. In 2003, Ivins recieved the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service -- the highest award given to Defense Department civilian employees -- for his work on the vaccine.

Unlike Sabin, Ivins didn’t use his knowledge for good.

On Aug. 6, 2008, days after he committed suicide, the FBI determined that Ivins was the “sole culprit” behind the 2001 anthrax attacks shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.


Why did Ivins distribute a deadly substance that he spent his life’s work fighting?

The FBI Director at the time, Robert Mueller -- yes, that Robert Mueller -- said Ivins’ livelihood was in jeopardy when the Department of Defense wanted to end anthrax vaccinations because of side effects later called “Gulf War Syndrome.” And when the U.S. was attacked on Sept. 11, Ivins capitalized on the paralyzing fear sweeping the nation.

“The anthrax vaccine program to which he had devoted his entire career was failing,” according to the “Amerithrax” report from the Justice Department. “Short of some major breakthrough or intervention, he feared that the vaccine research program was going to be discontinued.”

After the anthrax attacks in 2001, however, Ivins’ program experienced a rebirth.

The scientist and father of two stood to benefit financially and professionally from a resurgence in anthrax paranoia.

But, in the end, little oddities connected Ivins to the case, according to the Amerithrax report.

One oddity involved Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority: Ivins became obsessed with the sorority after a UC classmate “spurned him” in his sophomore year by refusing to go on a date with him, documents from the Amerithrax investigation said.

The sorority sister “has no memory of the incident or Dr. Irvins,” but “the rebuff to his fragile self-image appears to have triggered a lifelong obsession,” behavior analysts wrote in a report used in the Amerithrax investigation.

Ivins was “obsessed with the sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma,” the report said. “By his own account, many times over the years, he would drive three hours or more to visit various KKG sorority chapter houses. Once he arrived, he would look at the house for approximately 10 minutes and then drive home for three hours or more.”

At UC, and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he later worked, Ivins broke into the KKG house, vandalized property and stole secret chapter and code books, according to a ProPublica story.

Ivins involved KKG in the anthrax attacks, too — the letters containing the substance were mailed from the mailbox in front of the Kappa Kappa Gamma house at Princeton University.

“This mailbox wasn’t a random mailbox,” Edward Montooth, a former FBI agent who worked on the case told ProPublica. “There was significance to it for multiple reasons. And when we spoke to some of the behavioral science folks, they explained to us that everything is done for a reason with the perpetrator. And you may never understand it because you don’t think the same way.”

The threatening letters sent with the anthrax all contained seemingly anti-America, pro-Muslim messages, like “Death to America, Allah is great, Are you afraid? Take Penacilin now.” While that diverted investigators’ attention briefly, Ivins couldn’t refrain from sharing details of the letters with friends before they were released to the public, according to the Amerithrax report. Additionally, the envelopes used to mail the letters were bought a few blocks from Ivins’ home in Maryland.

In hindsight, Ivins’ behavior on the day of the attack was odd -- even inappropriate.

On the day five people died, a dozen were injured, the Capitol Building and most post offices were evacuated because of fear of exposure, the scientist sent an email to his wife, children, colleagues and childhood friends from Lebanon, according to the New York Times. The email was called “In the lab” and showed photos of Ivins’ coworkers hard at work. He wrote to explain that his lab was working on the "now infamous ‘Ames’ strain of Bacillus anthracis.”

A former classmate, Nancy Haigwood, said that email was all she needed to believe that Ivins was behind the attack.

“I read that e-mail, and I thought, 'He did it,'” Haigwood told the Times.

Residents of Lebanon, Ivins’ lifelong home, said they were confused as to why the FBI was visiting the small Warren County town, asking about the Ivins family, their former home and Bruce Ivins’ father’s former pharmacy.


“The FBI was here in town asking an awful lot of questions about him,” Mike McMurray, who lived in Ivins’ childhood home, said. “But once we saw the news we were like ‘uh-oh.’"

Even Ivins’ brother, Tom, who had not seen his brother in 20 years when he learned of his suicide, said he believed Bruce could have carried out the attacks.

“I tried to keep away from him,” said Tom Ivins, who moved to Middletown. "He could have done it. He might have been influenced.”

Lebanon residents told 9 On Your Side that Ivins was awkward, eccentric, but harmless -- characteristics echoed in the behavioral analysis report.

“He juggled at parties, played the keyboard at church and wrote clever poems for departing colleagues. He seemed harmless… that is precisely how Dr. Ivins wanted them to see him,” the report said. "He cultivated a persona of benign eccentricity that masked his obsessions and criminal thoughts.”

The FBI also determined that Ivins had a “traumatic and damaging” childhood.

“Although his early experiences certainly do not exonerate him in any way, they do help explain the kind of character and woldview he developed,” the report said.

Ivins’ mother beat, stabbed and threatened to kill his father regularly, the report said, according to “ample evidence.”

“It appears (the mother) physically abused (Bruce Ivins) and that his father mocked him publicly as well,” the report said. “For those reasons, Ivins grew up with the deeply-felt sense that he had not been wanted by his parents.”

The next section of the report is redacted.

In the winter of 2006, Mueller turned the FBI’s five-year-old anthrax investigation away from biologist Steven Hatfill to Ivins. Several months later, Ivins was committed to a psychiatric hospital after he tried to commit suicide.

On July 27, 2008, Ivins died by suicide when he overdosed on codeine, according to the New York Times.

The smoking gun linking Ivins to the attack was anthrax found in Ivins’ lab that was a perfect biological match from the anthrax sent in the mail in 2001.

Ivins was 62 when he died.