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Anthrax Murder

Who was sending anthrax through the mail?

Who was sending anthrax through the mail?

Five are dead after exposure to anthrax.

On Tuesday, October 16, 2001, Norma Wallace reported for work at the postal office in Trenton, New Jersey.  Norma wasn’t feeling well and thought it was a mild case of the flu.  But as the day wore on, she became increasingly ill.   She could barely breathe.

Some 200 miles away in Washington, DC, another postal worker, Leroy Richmond, was suffering nearly identical symptoms.  He too became gravely ill.  In a matter of days, both Norma and Leroy were hospitalized and their conditions grew worse by the hour.  They seemed to be slowly suffocating to death–and doctors couldn’t figure out why.  But after administering a battery of tests, they finally came up with a diagnosis—anthrax poisoning.

Like millions of other Americans, Leroy and Norma were aware that anthrax had killed a man in Florida just days earlier.  Now they were suffering from the most deadly form of the disease.  Suddenly, in the wake of September 11th, the nation faced a second wave of terrorism.

The anthrax terror plot came to light on October 5, 2001, in Boca Raton, Florida.  63-year-old Robert Stevens, a photo editor at the Sun newspaper, died after he was exposed to anthrax spores.  Experts believed they came from a letter that was opened.  But the letter had been thrown away—its origin unknown.  Suddenly, Federal investigators were thrust into the world of bio-terrorism.  According to Van A. Harp, Assistant Director of the FBI’s Washington field office, it proved to be no ordinary crime scene:

“We don’t have a crime scene in the traditional sense.  We don’t have witnesses.  And, we really don’t have anyone that we can call an informant at this point.”

The perpetrator was identified

The perpetrator was identified

The same week in Manhattan, NBC News and the New York Post received anthrax-tainted letters.  But this time there was a clue—post marks on the envelopes from Trenton, New Jersey.  A swarm of FBI agents checked every mailbox in town for traces of anthrax.  They found none.

Then, on October 9th, 2001, in Washington DC, two more letters laced with anthrax were discovered.  Once again they were postmarked Trenton, New Jersey.  This time, politicians were the targets—Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy at their offices in DC.  According to Dr. Meryl Nass, the letters contained a form of anthrax so pure and concentrated, it was termed “weapons grade”:

“This is dangerous, dangerous stuff.  It was estimated that two trillion spores went into each of those envelopes, which would have been two grams.  One envelope may have had a hundred million lethal doses.”

Under the right conditions, just two grams of anthrax could potentially wipe out one third of the U.S. population.  Investigators came to a significant conclusion.  Notes contained within the anthrax-laden envelopes had similar handwriting, leading authorities to believe they came from the same source.  Did references to 9/11, “Death to Israel” and “Allah is Great” point to Arab terrorists?  Or, to someone who wanted investigators to think Arab extremists were involved?  Assistant Director Harp said the FBI was looking at three broad possibilities:

“The first being international terrorists.  Domestic terrorism.  We’re looking at some of the individuals within the United States.  And then we’re looking at the lone wolf, as well.”

By October 20th, postal worker Norma Wallace was fighting for her life.  Her temperature had soared above 100.  She was in shock.  The anthrax spores were releasing a lethal toxin, causing blood vessels to break and the bacteria to pulse through her bloodstream:

“I felt like I was dying.  I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  Once the spores enter your lungs they actually attack the tissues and the lymph nodes and this causes the anthrax to actually take possession of your body.”

The prognosis for Leroy Richmond was also grim.  Suffering excruciating pain, Leroy laid helpless as his lungs filled with fluids.  Even worse was the fact that doctors knew their most powerful drugs were rarely effective in fighting this silent killer.  Leroy recalled how he practically stared death in the eye:

“I think I was… as near to death then as I ever was going to get.  My breathing had become so shallow that I was actually panting like a dog would breathe.  And I heard a couple guys say, man he’s not going to last but a couple hours and that’ll be it for him.”

Miraculously, both Norma and Leroy survived their harrowing ordeals.  However, four other anthrax victims were not as lucky–bringing the death toll to five:  in Washington, DC, Leroy’s co-workers, Thomas Morris and Joseph Curseen and in New York City, hospital worker Kathy Nyugen.  Three weeks later, Ottilie Lundgren in Derby, Connecticut.