Report: Theory Links Anthrax to Md. Pond

AP Wire Service

FREDERICK, Md. – A new FBI theory based on evidence recovered from a Maryland pond suggests how the person behind the 2001 anthrax attacks could have packed the deadly spores into envelopes without being infected, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

FBI spokeswoman Debra Weierman, contacted Sunday, declined to comment on the Post report or on searches conducted at a series of ponds in Frederick Municipal Forest.

The 18-month-old investigation into the mailing of anthrax-filled envelopes that killed five people has been reinvigorated by evidence recovered from the ponds this winter, the Post reported.

The findings offer physical evidence in a case that so far has been built almost exclusively on circumstantial clues, the Post quoted sources as saying.

Two sources familiar with the items recovered from one of the ponds described a clear box, with holes that could accommodate gloves to protect the user during work, the Post reported. So-called glove boxes are commonly used to handle dangerous pathogens. Also recovered were vials wrapped in plastic.

For protection against airborne bacteria that might released, a person could put envelopes and secured anthrax powder into the box, then waded into shallow water and submerged it to put the bacteria into the envelopes underwater, some involved in the case believe, the Post said. Afterward, the envelopes could have been sealed inside plastic bags to be removed from the underwater chamber.

Other sources told the newspaper the work could have been done on land and the materials discarded in the pond.

The FBI has said nothing publicly about the material divers recovered during the December and January search missions.

Sources close to the case told the Post that the discovery in the ponds was so compelling that the FBI now plans to drain one of the ponds of thousands of gallons of water for a detailed search this summer.

Heather Lynch, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, declined to comment on that plan Sunday.

The search of the ponds was based on a tip, the Post reported.

Some investigators said the water theory is the result of the FBI’s interest in Steven Hatfill, a physician and bioterrorism expert who formerly worked as a researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick. That facility is the primary custodian of the strain of anthrax found in the envelopes sent to the victims.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has described Hatfill as “a person of interest” in the investigation. Hatfill formerly lived in an apartment outside Fort Detrick’s main gate, about eight miles from the ponds.

Hatfill’s attorney, Thomas Connolly, called the water theory “far-fetched.” He said Hatfill had nothing to do with the anthrax crimes.

Fort Detrick spokesman Charles Dasey declined to comment Sunday, referring calls to the FBI.

Several scientists said officials should test sediment at the bottom of the pond for the possible presence of anthrax spores, the Post said. But it said expert opinions vary on whether spores from contaminated equipment could later be found in a natural body of water.