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Bruce E. Ivins, a biodefence scientist, died an apparent suicide on Tuesday as prosecutors prepared to indict him on charges related to the mailing of anthrax-laced letters in 2001. ((Frederick News Post/Associated Press))

A U.S. military scientist committed suicide as federal prosecutors readied an indictment alleging he mailed anthrax-laced letters in 2001 in what authorities said Friday may have been a bizarre attempt to test a vaccine for the deadly poison.

The scientist, Bruce E. Ivins, worked at the army's biodefence labs at Fort Detrick, Md., for 18 years until his death on Tuesday.

He had a long history of homicidal threats, according to papers recently filed in local court by a social worker.

Letters containing anthrax powder turned up at congressional offices, newsrooms and elsewhere weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,  killing five and sending numerous victims to hospitals with anthrax poisoning.

Ivins's attorney asserted the scientist's innocence and said he had been co-operating 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," said Paul F. Kemp.

For more than a decade, Ivins worked to develop an anthrax vaccine that would be effective even in cases where different strains of anthrax were mixed, which made vaccines ineffective, according to federal documents reviewed by the Associated Press. In his research, he complained about the limitations of testing anthrax drugs on animals.

Several U.S. officials, all of whom discussed the ongoing investigation on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said prosecutors were closing in on the 62-year-old Ivins for the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Authorities had been investigating whether the anthrax was released to test new drugs. They were planning an indictment that would have sought the death penalty for the attacks, officials said. For years, the only known suspect in the investigation dubbed "Amerithrax" had been Steven Hatfill, a colleague of Ivins, who has since been exonerated.

The Justice Department released a brief statement Friday afternoon saying, "substantial progress has been made in the investigation by bringing to bear new and sophisticated scientific tools." The statement did not identify Ivins. It said investigative documents remain sealed but the department expects to release more information soon.

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 was expected within days. If the case is closed soon, one official said, that will indicate that Ivins was the lone suspect.

'Pressure of accusation and innuendo'

Ivins died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland. Tom Ivins, a brother of the scientist, told the Associated Press that his other brother, Charles, had told him that Bruce committed suicide and Tylenol might have been involved. The Los Angeles Times, which first reported that Ivins was under suspicion, said the scientist had taken a massive dose of a prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine.

Kemp said his client's death was the result of the government's "relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo."

Friends, colleagues and court documents paint a picture of a brilliant scientist with a troubled side. Maryland court documents show he recently received psychiatric treatment and he was ordered to stay away from a woman he was accused of stalking and threatening to kill.

Social worker Jean C. Duley filed handwritten court documents last week saying she was preparing to testify before a grand jury.

She said the FBI was involved and that Ivins would be charged with five capital murders.

"Client has a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, plans and actions towards therapists," Duley said, adding that his psychiatrist had described him as homicidal and sociopathic.

Dr. W. Russell Byrne, who worked in the bacteriology division at Fort Detrick for 15 years, said police forcefully removed Ivins from his job recently because of fears he had become a danger to himself or others. Byrne said he said he did not believe Ivins was behind the anthrax attacks.

Co-author of several anthrax studies

Ivins, who received three degrees including a PhD from the University of Cincinnati, co-authored numerous anthrax studies, including one published in July that described efforts to treat mice deliberately exposed to anthrax. The scientists complained of the limited supply of monkeys available for testing and said testing on animals is insufficient to demonstrate how humans would respond to treatment.

Unusual behaviour by Ivins was noted at Fort Detrick in the six months following the anthrax mailings, when he conducted unauthorized testing for anthrax spores outside containment areas at the infectious disease research unit where he worked, according to an internal report. But the focus long stayed on Hatfill.

Investigators have been watching Ivins for some time. His brother, Tom Ivins, said federal agents questioned the scientist about a year and a half ago. Neighbours said FBI agents in cars with tinted windows conducted surveillance on his home. A colleague, Henry S. Heine, said that over the past year, he and others on their team have testified before a federal grand jury in Washington that has been investigating the anthrax mailings.

In occasional letters to the local newspaper, Ivins discussed his strong religious faith. He played keyboard and helped clean up after masses at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Frederick, where a dozen parishioners gathered after morning mass to pray for him Friday.

Five people died and 17 were sickened by anthrax powder in letters that were mailed to lawmakers' Capitol Hill offices, TV networks in New York, and tabloid newspaper offices in Florida. Two postal workers in a Washington mail facility, a New York hospital worker, a Florida photo editor and an elderly Connecticut woman were killed.