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US scientist commits suicide as Feds prep anthrax charges

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A senior US government bioscientist thought to be facing charges over the 2001 anthrax attacks has apparently committed suicide.

The Los Angeles Times reports that 62-year-old Bruce Ivins died on Tuesday after taking a massive dose of painkillers. He had learned that the US Department of Justice was about to hit him with charges relating to the 2001 attacks. Last week, the head of the FBI told CNN that the bureau had made “breakthroughs” in the case.

Ivins was a microbiologist at the US government’s biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and reportedly played a major role in the investigations into the spate of anthrax mailings. The mailings caused widespread panic in a US already beyond jittery in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

At the time, investigators had focused on another government scientist, Stephen Hatfill, who was pilloried in the press throughout 2002. In June, the authorities paid $5.8m to Hatfill to settle a privacy case he brought regarding their very public and vitriolic investigation of him. While the government admitted no liability, the deal was seen as exonerating Hatfill.

According to the LA Times, Ivins began showing signs of “serious strain” shortly after the government’s deal with Hatfill, and expressed suicidal thoughts to a therapist he was seeing to treat depression. His access to sensitive work at the government labs was curtailed, and he was subsequently hospitalised for depression.

He was released from hospital on July 24, but was facing the prospect of forced retirement according to a colleague, who described him as “emotionally fractured” by the scrutiny from the Feds.

Ironically, USA Today in 2004 carried a detailed piece explaining how Ivins had spotted and calmly dealt with a colleague's fears that she, and her desk, had been contaminated with anthrax. ®

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