With investigators close to filing charges in connection with the string of anthrax deaths in 2001, a senior biodefense researcher took his own life earlier this week, a lawyer for the scientist said on Friday.
Bruce E. Ivins, 62, who worked at the biodefense laboratories in Fort Detrick, Md., for the past 33 years, had been told of the investigation into the incidents, which traumatized the nation in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, said the lawyer, Paul Kemp.
"For six years, Dr. Ivins fully cooperated with that investigation, assisting the government in every way that was asked of him," Mr. Kemp said. He insisted that Mr. Ivins had not played a role in the anthrax deaths of at least five people.
"The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people, as has already been seen in this investigation," Mr. Kemp said. "In Dr. Ivins' case, it led to his untimely death."
Little more than a month ago, the Justice Department agreed to pay $4.6 million to settle a lawsuit by another biodefense researcher at the same facility, Steven J. Hatfill, ending a five-year legal battle.
A federal law enforcement official said that Mr. Ivins was regarded as a legitimate suspect in the case and that agents were nearing a possible arrest.
Federal officials were caught off guard by the apparent suicide, and were limited in what they could say by grand jury secrecy rules. "All of that stuff is sealed - we have nothing we can talk about," the official said, adding that federal officials also needed to brief the victims' families before making any public statements.
Mr. Ivins, who was married and the father of two, died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital, according to an obituary published Friday in The Frederick News-Post.
The Los Angeles Times, which published an article on Friday about the investigation and Mr. Ivins's death, said that he had taken a massive dose of a prescription painkiller, Tylenol mixed with codeine.
Thomas R. Ivins Jr., Bruce Ivins' brother, said that another brother, Charles Ivins, called him earlier this week and said that Bruce had died of the overdose, and that the death was believed to be a suicide.
Thomas Ivins, who at 73 is the eldest of the three brothers, said in an interview Friday morning from his home in Middletown, Ohio, that F.B.I. agents had contacted him about 18 months ago to ask about Bruce. He said he had been estranged from his youngest brother and had not spoken to him in 20 years, so he could tell the agents little about him or his work. "I gave them family background and history," he said.
He said his father, T. Randall Ivins, ran a pharmacy in Lebanon, Ohio, where the brothers grew up.
A relative who answered the phone at Charles Ivins' house said he was unable to talk because he was recovering from open-heart surgery following a recent heart attack. "It's a very difficult time," said the relative, who declined to give her name.
The laboratory at Fort Detrick, officially known as the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, has been at the center of the F.B.I. and in fact Mr. Ivins had assisted in analyzing samples from the 2001 anthrax attacks.
"We are not at this time making any official statements or comments regarding this situation," Debbie Weierman, a spokeswoman for the F.B.I's Washington field office, which is investigating the anthrax attacks, told The Associated Press on Friday. The A.P. reported that prosecutors were planning to seek the death penalty in the case.
Scott Shane and Eric Lichtblau contributed reporting from Washington.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company