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Doubts Linger About Unsolved Attacks in 2001

August 2, 2008

By Luther Turmelle and Michelle Tuccitto Sullo, New Haven Register, Conn.

Aug. 2–Connecticut residents were filled with a mix of relief and skepticism over Friday’s news that there may have been a macabre resolution to who was behind the 2001 anthrax attacks that k i l l e d a n elderly Oxford w o m a n a n d left workers at a Wallingford postal facility in a state of high anxiety for months.

Federal prosecutors investigating the attacks were preparing to indict Bruce E. Ivins, a top Army microbiologist, in connection with anthrax mailings, which killed Ottilie Lundgren, 94, and four other people. But the scientist, who was developing a vaccine against the deadly toxin, committed suicide this week.

The president of the Greater Connecticut Area Local of the American Postal Workers, John Dirzius, said Friday’s news “puts a tragic end to a tragic time.” But to fully appreciate the closure it provides to local U.S. Postal Service employees, Dirzius said people need to remember that two of the five people killed in the anthrax attacks were Washington, D.C., Postal Service employees.

“There was a lot of fear among our people,” Dirzius said. “We were on the front line.”

U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing grand jury proceedings, said that Ivins, 62, was under investigation to determine whether he released the anthrax as a way to test his vaccine. Prosecutors were prepared to seek the death penalty against Ivins, federal officials said.

Ivins died Tuesday in a Frederick, Md., hospital from what family members said involved an overdose of the painkiller Tylenol.

Despite the circumstances of Ivins’ death, a postal worker who has worked at the Postal Service’s Southern Connecticut Mail Processing and Distribution Center in Wallingford since 1995 said the news brings him a sense of closure.

“It makes me feel better to know that this person who harmed so many people can never hurt anyone again,” said Frank Vincent, of Wallingford. “And by taking his own life, he has punished himself.”

Others aren’t as convinced the news provides resolution in the case.

“I always wondered if the perpetrator had any remorse or guilt over the deaths,” said William Powanda, vice president of support services at Griffin Hospital, where Lundgren died Nov. 21, 2001. “Now, unless they have something to convince the public that (Ivins) was the guy, I think we’ll always remain open to the idea that it could have been someone else. I think there will still be uncertainty.”

Ivins’ attorney, Paul F. Kemp, asserted his client’s innocence and said he had cooperated with investigators for more than a year.

“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,” Kemp said.

For years, the only known suspect in the investigation dubbed “Amerithrax” had been Steven Hatfill, a colleague of Ivins who has been exonerated. Ivins had worked 18 years at the Army’s biological warfare labs at Fort Detrick, Md., before his death.

Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to close the investigation, officials said, meaning authorities are still not certain whether Ivins acted alone or had help. One official close to the case said that decision is expected within days.

If the case is closed soon, one official said, that would indicate Ivins was the lone suspect.

Some who knew Lundgren said they weren’t even aware the probe remained active.

“I was surprised that there has been an investigation going on,” said Margaret Crowther of Oxford, who was a friend of Lundgren. “It is sad that the man took his life so he couldn’t give his side of the story. Life goes on, and I hope this will be the end of it.”

But from the perspective of the U.S. Postal Service, the investigation continues.

Postal Service officials in Connecticut declined to comment on Friday’s news, and limited access to the grounds of the Wallingford facility.

“We still consider this to be the site of an active investigation,” said Maureen Marion, a Postal Service spokeswoman for the state.

Lundgren was admitted to Griffin Hospital on Nov. 16, 2001, because she was suffering from flu-like symptoms, including fever. Her condition worsened, and medical staffers did tests, which showed anthrax was the culprit.

Powanda said the anthrax case was “one of the most unbelievable” incidents in Griffin’s history.

“It was a moving experience for all of us involved here,” Powanda said. “It defied logic as to how a 94-year-old living a quiet life in a small rural town could possibly be a victim of a terrorist act. She was an unintentional and chance victim, because her mail happened to cross paths with someone who was an intended target.”

Oxford First Selectwoman Mary Ann Drayton-Rogers said Friday she feels the latest development “helps bring closure to the residents of Oxford, especially those who knew her (Lundgren).”

“I hope it will allow her to rest in peace,” Drayton-Rogers said. “Now, the person who did this has to answer to a higher authority, which allows us in Oxford to go on and not have it hanging over our heads.”

Drayton-Rogers had hired Lundgren’s husband as an attorney when she bought land in Oxford many years ago.

“I knew her husband, but didn’t know Ottilie personally,” Drayton-Rogers said. “She was a first-class lady from everything I’ve heard about her.”

Bill Sihau of Prospect, widower of Lundgren’s niece, Elaine Sihau, said Friday he had just heard the news on television. He said his wife died in 2002.

“I didn’t even think they were even looking into it anymore,” Sihau said. “I hope the investigators will continue to look into it and will be successful in learning who was responsible, even if it turns out that it was this person who just died.”

Crowther said she misses her friend and thinks of her often.

“She was a lady and a very nice person,” Crowther said. “She loved life and especially enjoyed children and being around young people.”

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Copyright (c) 2008, New Haven Register, Conn.

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