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Profile: W. Russell Byrne
W. Russell Byrne was a participant or observer in the following events:
Around late autumn 2007, FBI agents pressure the family of anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins. According to an unnamed scientist colleague and friend of Ivins, agents show Ivins’s 24-year-old daughter pictures of the victims of the 2001 anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001) and tell her, “Your father did this.” The agents also offer her brother the $2.5 million reward for solving the anthrax case and the sports car of his choice. Dr. W. Russell Byrne, a friend and former supervisor of Ivins, will later say he heard from other people who knew Ivins that investigators were going after Ivins’s daughter, but these conversations were short because people were afraid to talk. “The FBI had asked everybody to sign these nondisclosure things. They didn’t want to run afoul of the FBI.” [Associated Press, 8/5/2008] Bryne also says the FBI’s repeated discussions with Ivins’s daughter “was not an interview. It was a frank attempt at intimidation.” [Baltimore Sun, 8/5/2008]
Ivins Drinks and Struggles with Pressure - Perhaps as a result of this pressure, Ivins begins drinking heavily (a liter of vodka on some nights) and taking large doses of sleeping and anti-anxiety pills. His unnamed scientist friend later says that Ivins “was e-mailing me late at night with gobbledygook, ranting and raving” about what he called the “persecution” of his family. This friend also later says he is contacted by another colleague of Ivins who says that Ivins “has really gone down the tubes.” Another friend, Gerry Andrews, who worked with Ivins at USAMRIID for nine years, said that prior to this time Ivins drank so little that others teased him about being a teetotaler. Andrews had retired but kept in touch with Ivins until autumn 2007, when Ivins “kind of fell off the radar screen. I found out that there was some issues with his house being surveilled.”
Ivins Seeks Treatment - In March 2008, Ivins is found collapsed in his home. In April, he begins to seek treatment. He spends four weeks at a Maryland hospital for detoxification and rehabilitation, and begins attending therapy sessions with a counselor. In November 2007, Ivins is banned from working with dangerous toxins at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top biological laboratory, where he works (see November 1, 2007). But he will not be permanently barred from working there until July 2008, when he is hospitalized a second time (see July 10, 2008). [Washington Post, 8/6/2008]
Not long before anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins commits suicide on July 29, 2008 (see July 29, 2008), W. Russell Byrne, an infectious-disease specialist who knows Ivins, sees him at a Sunday service at the local Roman Catholic church they both attend. Bryne will later recall: “He just looked worried, depressed, anxious, way turned into himself.… It would be overstating it to say he looked like a guy who was being led to his execution, but it’s not far off.” [Washington Post, 8/2/2008] Ivins is under 24-hour surveillance by the FBI at this time (see July 23, 2008), but it is unknown if he is under any kind of suicide watch. Jeffrey Adamovicz, who was Ivins’s boss several years earlier, will later say: “A lot of the tactics [the FBI used against Ivins] were designed to isolate him from his support. The FBI just continued to push his buttons.” [Washington Post, 8/3/2008]
Melanie Ulrich. [Source: Andrew Schotz]On August 1, 2008, it is first reported that Bruce Ivins, a scientist at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland, apparently killed himself after the FBI made him their chief suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001). But many of Ivins’s colleagues at USAMRIID doubt that he was the killer.
On August 1, one unnamed colleague says, “They took an innocent man, a distinguished scientist, and smeared his reputation, dishonored him, questioned his children and drove him to take his life.… He just didn’t have the swagger, the ego to pull off that kind of thing, and he didn’t have the lab skills to make the fine powder anthrax that was used in the letters.” [ABC News, 8/1/2008]
On August 2, an unnamed USAMRIID employee says, “Almost everybody… believes that he had absolutely nothing to do with [the anthrax attacks].” [Washington Post, 8/2/2008]
Former colleague Norm Covert says, “We’re looking at a man with a distinguished 30-something-year career, unparalleled and known around the world.… His career and his reputation are trashed and the FBI still hasn’t said what they have on him.” [CNN, 8/2/2008]
Also on August 2, Dr. Kenneth Hedlund, the former chief of bacteriology as USAMRIID, says, “He did not seem to have any particular grudges or idiosyncrasies.… He was the last person you would have suspected to be involved in something like this.” [New York Times, 8/2/2008] Three days later, Hedlund adds, “I think he’s a convenient fall guy. They can say, ‘OK, we found him, case closed, we’re going home. The FBI apparently applied a lot of pressure to all the investigators there, and they found the weakest link.” He also says that Ivins was a bacteriologist and lacked the expertise to convert the anthrax into the deadly form used in the 2001 attacks.
Former colleague Dr. W. Russell Byrne says he believe Ivins was singled out partly because of Ivins’s personal weaknesses. “If they had real evidence on him, why did they not just arrest him?” [Baltimore Sun, 8/5/2008]
On August 4, David Franz, head of USAMRIID in the late 1990s, says, “The scientific community seems to be concerned that the FBI is going to blow smoke at us.” [Los Angeles Times, 8/4/2008]
On August 6, more than 200 of his USAMRIID colleagues attend a memorial for him. Col. John Skvorak, commander of USAMRIID, praises Ivins’s “openness, his candor, his humor and his honesty.” [Wall Street Journal, 8/7/2008]
On August 8, former colleague Gerry Andrews says, “Nothing is unimaginable. But I would definitely say it is doubtful” that Ivins was behind the anthrax attacks. [New York Times, 8/8/2008]
Also on August 8, Melanie Ulrich, a USAMRIID scientist until 2007, says the FBI’s case against Ivins does not add up and their description of him does not match the person she worked with for six years. For instance, she said that shortly after 9/11, an intensive, all-encompassing psychological review was conducted of all USAMRIID employees with access to dangerous biological agents, and it does not make sense that some as supposedly as unstable as Ivins could have remained employed for years of such scrutiny. The FBI claims that an anthrax flask in Ivins’s custody was the “parent” of a certain anthrax strain, but Ulrich says different anthrax samples were genetically identical so any one sample can not be more of a “parent” than any other. The FBI suggests Ivins used a lyophilizer to make powdered anthrax, but Ulrich says Ivins signed out a SpeedVac, but not a lyophilizer, which is too large to fit in the secure protective area Ivins used at the time. Furthermore, a SpeedVac operates slowly and it would have been impossible for Ivins to use it to dry the amount of anthrax used in the letters in the time frame the FBI says he did. [Herald-Mail, 8/8/2008]
On August 9, after the FBI has laid out its evidence against Ivins, Jeffrey Adamovicz, one of Ivins’s supervisors in USAMRIID’s bacteriology division, says, “I’d say the vast majority of people [at Fort Detrick] think he had nothing to do with it.” [Newsweek, 8/9/2008] He also says that the anthrax sent to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) was “so concentrated and so consistent and so clean that I would assert that Bruce could not have done that part.” [McClatchy Newspapers, 8/7/2008]
Former colleague Luann Battersby says Ivins was weird, but “not any weirder than a typical scientist.… He was not the weirdest by far I worked with down there.” She says that he was not a “strong person.… I would say he was milquetoast.… The fact that he was a terrorist doesn’t really square with my opinion with who he was.… I’m amazed at all this. I assume there’s evidence and that it’s true, but I certainly never would have suspected him.” She says she is unsure if he had the technical skills to commit the crime. [Evening Sun, 8/10/2008]
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