The Mirage Man by David Willman: Anthrax Attacker Bruce Ivins' Obsessions

The troubled psychiatric history of Bruce Ivins, the man responsible for the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Bruce Ivins in 2003. Photo: USAMRIID-Reuters-Corbis

On the morning of October 4, 2001, just three weeks after the events of September 11, sixty-three-year-old Robert Stevens lay near his death in a south Florida hospital. Stevens, who edited photographs for the parent company of the National Enquirer, was in the grip of an extraordinarily rare infection: inhalational anthrax.

Stevens’s death the next day puzzled public health officials, who scrambled to learn how anthrax—a soil-borne bacterium that most commonly threatens cattle and other grazing animals—had found its way into this man’s lungs. Might Stevens have encountered spores of Bacillus anthracis during a recent hike through woods in North Carolina?

The more plausible scenario was infinitely more frightening: Scientists working around the clock quickly determined that what had killed Stevens was known as the Ames strain of anthrax, a variety that had only once been found in a natural setting. The Ames strain, it turned out, had since the 1980s been the anthrax of choice for U.S. Army researchers at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The geneticist who first saw what had killed Robert Stevens recognized the significance of his discovery: "The implications were that this was a bioterrorism event," recalled Paul S. Keim of Northern Arizona University. "It came out of a laboratory."

The news would soon deliver dread through a nation still reeling from the hijackings of airliners, crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in rural Pennsylvania. Was this the second wave—a biological attack of as-yet unknowable scale?

It would take the FBI several years and many missteps, including a mistaken investigation into the original prime suspect Steven Hatfill, before investigators finally zeroed in on the likely culprit, Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist working at Fort Detrick. As they looked further into Ivins’ life the investigators found a troubled man. Many of the details are revealed in The Mirage Man for the first time.

Since childhood, Bruce Ivins had been tormented by resentments toward those he believed had rejected him. Beneath his persona of “Bruce being Bruce,” the quirky, happy-go-lucky colleague, the good neighbor who cared deeply about others and just wanted to help, he boiled. Ivins eventually expressed a deepening awareness of how troubled he was.

“Occasionally I get this tingling that goes down both arms,” he told Mara Linscott, on April 3, 2000, a year after she had left Fort Detrick to attend medical school. “At the same time I get a bit dizzy and get this unidentifiable ‘metallic’ taste in my mouth. (I’m not trying to be funny, Mara. It actually scares me a bit.) Other times it’s like I’m not only sitting at my desk doing work, I’m also a few feet away watching me do it. There’s nothing like living in both the first person singular AND the third person singular!”

Ivins fretted that he may have inherited whatever abnormality had driven his mother to be such a violent, haunting force. He confided that he was depressed and anxious, that he had impulses to seek revenge, and that he had an alternate personality. Psychiatrists had prescribed various drugs, including an antidepressant, Celexa, for his routine use. But by the spring of 2000, Ivins said he was worried he would not be able to resist the urge to do harm. As part of his care, in June 2000 Ivins submitted to weekly one-on-one talk therapy with a clinical counselor, Judith M. McLean, based at Comprehensive Counseling Associates in Frederick, an organization headed by Dr. Allan L. Levy, who had recently become Ivins’ psychiatrist.

McLean learned from Ivins that he was an accomplished scientist and had access to dangerous substances, but she did not know anthrax was among them. Ivins began opening up to her about his life outside science: He had harsh things to say about his deceased mother and described a painful childhood, during which he never fit in with other kids and felt as if he had no friends. He said he had sometimes committed acts of anonymous vandalism against those who wronged him. Ivins had earlier told a psychiatrist that he carried a loaded gun at college. Imagining stationary objects inside of buildings as his enemies, he said he fired at them, once destroying a wall clock. He told McLean about people from his childhood against whom he wanted to exact revenge.

On the afternoon of July 18, 2000, Ivins arrived for his fourth session with McLean. They began discussing anew his obsession with Mara. He said he felt deeply attached to her, but she did not show the same interest in him. She was not responding regularly to his e-mails, and this angered him.

In a matter-of-fact manner, Ivins described how he had driven recently to upstate New York to watch Mara play in a soccer match, and how he had brought along a jug of wine that he had spiked with poison. If Mara had not been injured during the match, he would have offered her the wine when they met for a casual visit afterward. He had the ability, he told McLean, to create “lethal poisons” and the expertise to use them for revenge.

He said he saw himself as an “avenging angel of death.”

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McLean informed Ivins that she was duty bound to report to the authorities any homicidal threat. Given what she regarded as Ivins’ compulsive, vengeful state, McLean asked if he would be willing to submit to an evaluation by a psychiatrist. Ivins agreed to do so as soon as it could be arranged. Before he left that day, McLean persuaded him to sign a statement pledging not to harm anyone and to contact her immediately if he had further “homicidal thoughts.”

McLean was trying to stay outwardly calm and nonjudgmental, yet she was afraid of what Ivins might do—to her or to someone else. She found him “creepy, scary, spooky,” and was determined to sound a warning. On the day Ivins revealed his poisoning plot, McLean’s supervisor, Dr. Levy, who was Ivins’ psychiatrist, was on vacation, so she called the psychiatrist who was covering for him, Dr. Orrin Palmer, who in turn phoned Ivins. McLean also called the Frederick police that night and spoke to an officer who said it sounded as if no crime had been committed. She got a similar response when she called a lawyer who represented the practice she worked for, Comprehensive Counseling.

The next day, July 19, 2000, McLean reached Dr. David Irwin, who had once been Ivins’ psychiatrist, about performing the mental evaluation to which Ivins had agreed. Irwin said that Ivins had been like an “overstretched rubber band”—the “scariest” patient he had ever treated.

As Ivins struggled through the years with his psychiatric problems, he occupied one of the nation’s most sensitive biodefense positions: He routinely handled deadly and highly portable anthrax spores, and he had around-the-clock access to Fort Detrick’s specially equipped biocontainment labs. Yet at no point did Ivins’ employer, the U.S. Army, review his mental health. “Dr. Ivins was never evaluated by USAMRIID for mental fitness,” an Army official wrote, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the author.

One of the first pieces of evidence of Ivins’ troubled behavior emerged in 2005 when an FBI agent noted that the sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma’s chapter house at Princeton University was at 20 Nassau Street, adjacent to 10 Nassau Street, the location of a mailbox where spores of anthrax matching those used in the attacks were found. During an interview in 2008 with federal prosecutors and FBI agents, Ivins revealed the extent of his obsession with the sorority.

“I like individual Kappas enormously, and love being around them. I never choose an enemy, but they’ve been after me since the 1960s, and REALLY after me since the late 1970s.”

FBI Agent Vincent Lisi began gently, asking Ivins about his “interest” in Kappa Kappa Gamma. “You don’t understand,” Ivins said. “It’s not an interest. It’s an obsession.”

Ivins explained—at length. It began in the 1960s, when he asked a coed for a date at the University of Cincinnati and she declined. She was a member of the sorority. He then started scanning the school newspaper for mentions of Kappas and regularly spent time observing the campus sorority house. In the late 1970s he began compiling a list of “dozens and dozens and dozens” of Kappa chapters throughout the Eastern United States. Part of his research involved copying contact information from telephone directories at the Library of Congress. He visited Kappa sorority houses at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, at the University of Maryland in College Park, at West Virginia University in Morgantown, at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He was interested in Kappa’s presence at the University of Pennsylvania, but when he tried to call there he found out the chapter was closed.

Lisi was listening attentively, emotionlessly, saying only enough to keep the dialogue flowing. A few minutes later he asked Ivins if he had visited the Kappa chapter at Princeton University. “Oh no,” Ivins said. “No Ivy League schools.” But what about Ivins’ interest in the University of Pennsylvania chapter? “Penn’s an Ivy League?” (Well into the conversation Agent Edward Montooth’s cell phone vibrated. It was his sister on the line and he excused himself from the room to take the call. Their father had just died. Grieving would have to wait; Montooth returned directly to the interview.)

Ivins was animated, recalling more and more precise details. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he had escalated his vendetta against the sorority: He used something to “jimmy” open a window at the Kappa house in Chapel Hill. After wandering among the cabinets and drawers he found the KKG cipher—the manual that could decode the sorority’s Book of Ritual. He stole both the cipher and some ritual-related materials. A few years later, he said, he had planned and executed another burglary. This time it was the Kappa house in Morgantown. Again, he broke in by prying open a ground-floor window. Inside, he found and stole the sorority’s prized Book of Ritual, the storehouse of Kappa Kappa Gamma’s passwords and secrets.

Lisi, knowing the correct answers to many of the questions he was posing, tried another: What became of this purloined Book of Ritual? Ivins obliged. He copied the entire book, he said, and he returned it by U.S. mail to the Kappa chapter in West Virginia.

He included a phony personal note with the book, saying that although another fraternity brother stole the book, he wanted to return it to its rightful owners. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Ivins said, he decided to throw away all of his long-treasured KKG artifacts, including the Book of Ritual, the cipher, and the list of the sorority’s locations.

Only once, Ivins said, had a Kappa representative contacted him. It was through a letter thanking him for his $150 donation to the sorority, which he made in memory of Caitlin Hammaren, the KKG member killed in April 2007 by the gunman at Virginia Tech.

Within the previous year, Ivins had described in some detail his adversarial relationship with the sorority on a Web site called “Kappas are noted for being lovely, highly intelligent campus leaders,” Ivins wrote under one of his pseudonyms, Goldenphoenix. “Unfortunately, they labeled me as an enemy decades ago, and I can only abide by their ‘Fatwah’ on me. I like individual Kappas enormously, and love being around them. I never choose an enemy, but they’ve been after me since the 1960s, and REALLY after me since the late 1970s. At one time in my life, I knew more about KKG than any non-Kappa that had ever lived.”

The interview by this point had exceeded the investigators’ original goals. Now Lisi steered the conversation toward Nancy Haigwood, whom Ivins had met in the mid-1970s at the University of North Carolina. Ivins wound up confirming everything she had suspected.

Yes, he stole Haigwood’s lab notebook—holding all of the materials upon which her pursuit of a doctoral degree depended. Yes, he deposited the notebook in a U.S. mailbox on or near the campus in Chapel Hill. Yes, he informed Haigwood where the notebook could be found, possibly by way of an anonymous note. Yes, he anonymously vandalized the sidewalk, fence, and vehicle outside Haigwood’s home in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Yes, he wrote the letter to the Frederick newspaper in Haigwood’s name, defending hazing by college sororities. Yes, he opened one of his post office boxes in the name of Haigwood’s husband, Carl Scandella. Yes, he bought advertisements in Mother Jones and Rolling Stone offering, in the name of Carla Sander, Kappa Kappa Gamma’s closest-held secrets. Yes, he stole Patricia Fellows’s computer password by watching her log in at Fort Detrick, enabling him to hack into her e-mails. Yes, he used an array of pseudonyms, including an e-mail address called Bigsky, under which he sent leering e-mails to Mara Linscott. He said he stopped this when he learned that Linscott, fearing she was being stalked, was about to bring in the police. And yes, he subscribed to American Family Association Journal (the evangelical publication that publicized the filing of a lawsuit in connection with events at the Greendale Baptist Academy). The investigators did not point out that the letters to Senators Daschle and Leahy carried a return address that seemed to allude to the school and the fourth grader who was at the center of the controversy sparked by the lawsuit.

From the book, The Mirage Man by David Willman. Copyright © 2011 by David Willman. Reprinted by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

David Willman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist whose reporting for the Los Angeles Times brought to light the pivotal developments surrounding the 2001 anthrax letter attacks.