The Wrong Man

the fall of 2001, a nation reeling from the horror of 9/11 was rocked
by a series of deadly anthrax attacks. As the pressure to find a
culprit mounted, the FBI, abetted by the media, found one. The wrong
one. This is the story of how federal authorities blew the biggest
anti-terror investigation of the past decade—and nearly destroyed an
innocent man. Here, for the first time, the falsely accused, Dr. Steven
J. Hatfill, speaks out about his ordeal.

By David Freed

Image credit: Melissa Golden/Redux

The first anthrax attacks
came days after the jetliner assaults of September 11, 2001. Postmarked
Trenton, New Jersey, and believed to have been sent from a mailbox near
Princeton University, the initial mailings went to NBC News, the New York Post, and the Florida-based publisher of several supermarket tabloids, including The Sun and The National Enquirer.
Three weeks later, two more envelopes containing anthrax arrived at the
Senate offices of Democrats Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, each bearing
the handwritten return address of a nonexistent “Greendale School” in
Franklin Park, New Jersey. Government mail service quickly shut down.

The letters accompanying the anthrax read like the work of a
jihadist, suggesting that their author was an Arab extremist—or someone
masquerading as one—yet also advised recipients to take antibiotics,
implying that whoever had mailed them never really intended to harm
anyone. But at least 17 people would fall ill and five would die—a
photo editor at The Sun; two postal employees at a Washington,
D.C., mail-processing center; a hospital stockroom clerk in Manhattan
whose exposure to anthrax could never be fully explained; and a
94-year-old Connecticut widow whose mail apparently crossed paths with
an anthrax letter somewhere in the labyrinth of the postal system. The
attacks spawned a spate of hoax letters nationwide. Police were swamped
with calls from citizens suddenly suspicious of their own mail.

Video: The author and Steven Hatfill speak with The Today Show’s Matt Lauer

Americans had good reason to fear. Inhaled anthrax bacteria devour
the body from within. Anthrax infections typically begin with flu-like
symptoms. Massive lesions soon form in the lungs and brain, as a few
thousand bacilli propagate within days into literally trillions of
voracious parasitic microbes. The final stages before death are
excruciatingly painful.As their minds disintegrate, victims literally
drown in their own fluids. If you were to peer through a microscope at
a cross-section of an anthrax victim’s blood vessel at the moment of
death, it would look, says Leonard A. Cole, an expert on bioterrorism
at Rutgers University, “as though it were teeming with worms.”

The pressure on American law enforcement to find the perpetrator or
perpetrators was enormous. Agents were compelled to consider any and
all means of investigation. One such avenue involved Don Foster, a
professor of English at Vassar College and a self-styled literary
detective, who had achieved modest celebrity by examining punctuation
and other linguistic fingerprints to identify Joe Klein, who was then a
Newsweek columnist, as the author of the anonymously written 1996 political novel, Primary Colors.
Foster had since consulted with the FBI on investigations of the
Unabomber and Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park bombing, among other
cases. Now he was asked to analyze the anthrax letters for insights as
to who may have mailed them. Foster would detail his efforts two years
later in a 9,500-word article for Vanity Fair.

Surveying the publicly available evidence, as well as documents sent
to him by the FBI, Foster surmised that the killer was an American
posing as an Islamic jihadist. Only a limited number of American
scientists would have had a working knowledge of anthrax. One of those
scientists, Foster concluded, was a man named Steven Hatfill, a medical
doctor who had once worked at the Army’s elite Medical Research
Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), which had stocks of

On the day al-Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
with hijacked jetliners, Hatfill was recovering from nasal surgery in
his apartment outside the gates of Fort Detrick, Maryland, where
USAMRIID is housed. We’re at war, he remembers thinking as he watched
the news that day—but he had no idea that it was a war in which he
himself would soon become collateral damage, as the FBI came to regard
him as a homegrown bioterrorist, likely responsible for some of the
most unsettling multiple murders in recent American history. His story
provides a cautionary tale about how federal authorities, fueled by the
general panic over terrorism, embraced conjecture and coincidence as
evidence, and blindly pursued one suspect while the real anthrax killer
roamed free for more than six years. Hatfill’s experience is also the
wrenching saga of how an American citizen who saw himself as a patriot
came to be vilified and presumed guilty, as his country turned against

“It’s like death by a thousand cuts,” Hatfill, who is now 56, says
today. “There’s a sheer feeling of hopelessness. You can’t fight back.
You have to just sit there and take it, day after day, the constant
drip-drip-drip of innuendo, a punching bag for the government and the
press. And the thing was, I couldn’t understand why it was happening to
me. I mean, I was one of the good guys.”

Don Foster, the Vassar professor, was among those who set the wheels
of injustice in motion. Scouring the Internet, Foster found an
interview that Hatfill had given while working at the National
Institutes of Health, in which he described how bubonic plague could be
made with simple equipment and used in a bioterror attack. Foster later
tracked down an unpublished novel Hatfill had written, depicting a
fictional bioterror attack on Washington. He discovered that Hatfill
had been in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) during an anthrax outbreak
there in the late 1970s, and that he’d attended medical school near a
Rhodesian suburb called Greendale—the name of the invented school in
the return address of the anthrax letters mailed to the Senate. The
deeper Foster dug, the more Hatfill looked to him like a viable

“When I lined up Hatfill’s known movements with the postmark
locations of reported biothreats,” Foster later wrote, “those hoax
anthrax attacks appeared to trail him like a vapor cloud.”

In February 2002, Foster tried to interest the FBI in Hatfill, but
says he was told that Hatfill had a good alibi. “A month later, when I
pressed the issue,” Foster wrote, “I was told, ‘Look, Don, maybe you’re
spending too much time on this.’”

Meanwhile, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a passionate crusader against
the use of bioweapons, was also convinced that an American scientist
was to blame for the anthrax attacks. In an interview with the BBC in
early 2002, she theorized that the murders were the result of a
top-secret CIA project gone awry, and that the FBI was hesitant to
arrest the killer because it would embarrass Washington. A molecular
biologist and professor of environmental science who had once served as
a low-level bioweapons adviser to President Clinton, Rosenberg had
taken it upon herself to look into the anthrax murders, and her
investigations had independently led her to Hatfill. (Hatfill says he
believes Rosenberg was made aware of him by a former acquaintance, a
defense contractor with whom Hatfill had clashed over a proposed
counter-anthrax training program intended for the U.S. Marshals
Service.) Rosenberg wrote a paper she called “Possible Portrait of the
Anthrax Perpetrator,” which was disseminated on the Internet. Although
Rosenberg would later deny ever having identified him publicly or
privately, the specific details of her “Portrait” made it clear she had
a particular suspect in mind: Steven Hatfill.

Foster says he met Rosenberg over lunch in April 2002, “compared
notes,” and “found that our evidence had led us in the same direction.”
Weeks dragged on while he and Rosenberg tried to interest the FBI in
their theories, but the bureau remained “stubbornly unwilling to
listen.” Two months later, her “patience exhausted,” Rosenberg,
according to Foster, met on Capitol Hill with Senate staff members “and
laid out the evidence, such as it was, hers and mine.” Special Agent
Van Harp, the senior FBI agent on what by then had been dubbed the
“Amerithrax” investigation, was summoned to the meeting, along with
other FBI officials.

Rosenberg criticized the FBI for not being aggressive enough. “She
thought we were wasting efforts and resources in a particular—or in
several areas, and should focus more on who she concluded was
responsible for it,” Harp would later testify.

“Did she mention Dr. Hatfill’s name in her presentation?” Hatfill’s
attorney, former federal prosecutor Thomas G. Connolly, asked Harp
during a sworn deposition.

“That’s who she was talking about,” Harp testified.

Exactly a week after the Rosenberg meeting, the FBI carried out its
first search of Hatfill’s apartment, with television news cameras
broadcasting it live.

In his deposition, Harp would dismiss the timing of the search as coincidental.

Beryl Howell, who at the time of the investigation was serving as
Senator Patrick Leahy’s point person on all matters anthrax, recently
told me that asking Harp and other lead agents to sit down with the
“quite persistent” Rosenberg was never meant to pressure the FBI to go
after Hatfill. The meeting, Howell says, was intended simply to ensure
that investigators cooperated with other experts outside the bureau and
objectively considered all theories in the case in order to solve it
more quickly.

“Whether or not Rosenberg’s suspicions about Hatfill were correct
was really not my business,” Howell says. “It was really law
enforcement’s prerogative to figure that one out.”

There was enough circumstantial evidence surrounding Hatfill that
zealous investigators could easily elaborate a plausible theory of him
as the culprit. As fear about the anthrax attacks spread, government
and other workers who might have been exposed to the deadly spores via
the mail system were prescribed prophylactic doses of Cipro, a powerful
antibiotic that protects against infection caused by inhaled anthrax.
Unfamiliar to the general population before September 2001, Cipro
quickly became known as the anti-anthrax drug, and prescriptions for it

As it happened, at the time of the anthrax attacks, Hatfill was taking Cipro.

Hatfill’s eccentricity also generated suspicion among colleagues and
FBI agents. Bench scientists tend toward the sedate and
gymnasium-challenged. Steve Hatfill was a flag-waving, tobacco-chewing
weight lifter partial to blood-rare steaks and black safari suits that
showed off his linebacker’s physique, a physician with a bawdy sense of
humor and a soldier’s ethos, who told stories over cocktails of
parachuting from military aircraft and battling Communists in Africa.
While few people who knew him could deny his intellect or his passion
as a researcher, some found him arrogant and blustery. Others feared
him. Even his allies acknowledge that Hatfill could sometimes come
across as different. “If you try to link Steve and the word normal,
they’re not going to match up,” says Jim Cline, a retired Special
Forces sergeant major and anti-terror expert who worked with Hatfill
from 1999 to 2002 at Science Applications International Corporation
(SAIC), a large defense contractor.

It also happened that Hatfill was familiar with anthrax. He had done
his medical training in Africa, where outbreaks of anthrax infections
have been known to occur among livestock herds. In 1999, after going to
work for SAIC, Hatfill had a hand in developing a brochure for
emergency personnel on ways to handle anthrax hoax letters. In the long
run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, he also oversaw the construction of
a full-scale model designed to show invading U.S. troops what a mobile
Iraqi germ-warfare lab might look like and how best to destroy it. But
while he possessed a working knowledge of Bacillus anthracis, Hatfill had never worked in any capacity with the spore-forming, rod-shaped bacterium.

“I was a virus guy,” he told me, “not a bacteria guy.”

Still, when FBI agents asked to interview him 10 months after the
anthrax murders, Hatfill says, he wasn’t surprised. In their hunt for
what he believed were the foreign terrorists who had sent the letters,
Hatfill assumed that agents were routinely interviewing every scientist
who’d ever worked at USAMRIID,
including those, like himself, who had never set foot in the
high-security laboratory where anthrax cultures were kept. Hatfill
answered the agents’ questions and willingly took a polygraph test,
which he says he was told he passed.

“I thought that was the end of it,” Hatfill says. “But it was only the beginning.”

In June, agents asked to “swab” his apartment. Hatfill complied,
feeling he had nothing to hide. On June 25, 2002, after signing a
consent form at the FBI’s field office in nearby Frederick, Maryland,
he came home to find reporters and camera crews swarming. TV
helicopters orbited overhead. “There’s obviously been a leak,” Hatfill
says one of the agents told him. He was driven to a Holiday Inn to
escape the crush of news media and sat in a motel room, watching
incredulously as a full-blown search of his home played out on national
television. The experience was surreal.

Agents conducted a second search five weeks later amid a repeated
media circus. This time they came equipped with a warrant and
bloodhounds. The dogs, Hatfill would later learn, had been responsible
for false arrests in other cases. Hatfill says he innocently petted one
of hounds, named Tinkerbell. The dog seemed to like him. “He’s
identified you from the anthrax letters!” Tinkerbell’s handler

“It took every ounce of restraint to stop from laughing,” Hatfill
recalls. “They said, ‘We know you did it. We know you didn’t mean to
kill anyone.’ I said, ‘Am I under arrest?’ They said no. I walked out,
rented a car, and went to see an attorney about suing the hell out of
these people.”

The FBI raided Hatfill’s rented storage locker in Ocala, Florida,
where his father owned a thoroughbred horse farm; the agency also
searched a townhouse in Washington, D.C., owned by his longtime
girlfriend, a slim, elegant accountant whom Hatfill calls “Boo.” (To
guard her privacy, he asked that her real name not be used.) Agents
rifled through Boo’s closets and drawers, breaking cherished keepsakes.
“They told me, ‘Your boyfriend murdered five people,’” she said to me
recently, unable to talk about it without tears.

Hatfill was fired from SAIC. The official explanation given was that
he had failed to maintain a necessary security clearance; the real
reason, he believes, was that the government wanted him fired. He
immediately landed the associate directorship of a fledgling Louisiana
State University program designed to train firefighters and other
emergency personnel to respond to terrorist acts and natural disasters,
a job that would have matched the $150,000 annual salary he’d been
getting at SAIC. But after Justice Department officials learned of
Hatfill’s employment, they told LSU to “immediately cease and desist”
from using Hatfill on any federally funded program. He was let go
before his first day. Other prospective employment fell through. No one
would return his calls. One job vanished after Hatfill emerged from a
meeting with prospective employers to find FBI agents videotaping them.
His savings dwindling, he moved in with Boo.

By this time, the FBI and the Justice Department were so confident
Hatfill was guilty that on August 6, 2002, Attorney General John
Ashcroft publicly declared him a “person of interest”—the only time the
nation’s top law-enforcement official has ever so identified the
subject of an active criminal investigation. Agents grilled Hatfill’s
friends, tapped his phone, installed surveillance cameras outside Boo’s
condo, and for more than two years, shadowed him day and night, looking
for any grounds on which to arrest him.

Many of Hatfill’s friends, worried for their own reputations,
abandoned him as the FBI gave chase. Certain of Hatfill’s innocence,
his former colleague Jim Cline was among the few who stood by him,
afraid that his increasingly socially isolated friend would kill
himself to escape his torment. “When you have the world against you,”
Cline says, “and only a few people are willing to look you in the eye
and tell you, ‘I believe you’—I mean, to this day, I really don’t know
how the guy survived.”

Virtually everywhere Hatfill went, the FBI went too, often right
behind him—a deliberately harassing tactic called “bumper locking.”
Hatfill believes that local authorities joined in tormenting him at the
behest of the Justice Department. Coming home from dinner one Friday
night, he was pulled over by a Washington, D.C., police officer who
issued him a warning for failing to signal a lane change. Three blocks
later, another cop stopped him, again for not using his turn signal.
The officer asked if he’d been drinking. Hatfill said he’d had one
Bloody Mary. He was ordered out of his car. “Not unless you’re going to
arrest me,” Hatfill says he responded indignantly. The officer obliged.
Hatfill spent the weekend in jail and would later be ordered to attend
a four-day alcohol counseling program. The police, he says, refused to
administer a blood-alcohol test that would have proved he wasn’t drunk.

Connolly, Hatfill’s attorney, offered to have Hatfill surrender his
passport and be outfitted with a tracking device, to have FBI agents
ride with him everywhere, to show them that they were wasting their
time. The offer was rejected. “They were purposely sweating him,”
Connolly says, “trying to get him to go over the edge.”

Much of what authorities discovered, they leaked anonymously to
journalists. The result was an unrelenting stream of inflammatory
innuendo that dominated front pages and television news. Hatfill found
himself trapped, the powerless central player in what Connolly
describes as “a story about the two most powerful institutions in the
United States, the government and the press, ganging up on an innocent
man. It’s Kafka.”

With Hatfill’s face splashed all over the news, strangers on the
street stared. Some asked for his autograph. Hatfill was humiliated.
Embarrassed to be recognized, he stopped going to the gym. He stopped
visiting friends, concerned that the FBI would harass them, too. Soon,
he stopped going out in public altogether. Once an energetic and
ambitious professional who reveled in 14-hour workdays, Hatfill now
found himself staring at the walls all day. Television became his
steady companion.

“I’d never really watched the news before,” Hatfill says, “and now
I’m seeing my name all over the place and all these idiots like Geraldo
Rivera asking, ‘Is this the anthrax animal? Is this the guy who
murdered innocent people?’ You might as well have hooked me up to a
battery. It was sanctioned torture.”

Hatfill decided to redecorate Boo’s condo as a distraction from the
news. He repainted, hung wallpaper, learned to install crown molding.
He also began drinking.

An afternoon glass of red wine became three or more. At night,
Hatfill would stay up late, dipping Copenhagen tobacco and getting
drunk while waiting in a smoldering rage for his name to appear on
television, until finally he would pass out and wake up gagging on the
tobacco that had caught in his throat, or stumble around and “crash
into something.” Boo would help him to bed. After a few anguished hours
of sleep, Hatfill would see her off to work, doze past noon, then rise
to repeat the cycle, closing the blinds to block the sun and the video
camera the FBI had installed on a pole across the street. For a while,
Boo bought newspapers, so the two of them could fume over the latest
lies that had been published about him. But soon he asked her to stop
bringing them home, because he couldn’t take it anymore.

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