The Killer Strain: Anthrax and a Government Exposed

The Killer Strain: Anthrax and a Government Exposed

by Marilyn W. Thompson


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A lethal germ is unleashed in the U.S. mail. A chain of letters spreads terror from Florida to Washington, from New York to Connecticut, from the halls of the U.S. Congress to the assembly lines of the U.S. Postal Service. Five people die and ten thousand more line up for antibiotics to protect against exposure. A government already outsmarted by the terrorist hijackers of 9/11 stumbles, leaving workers vulnerable and a diabolical killer on the loose. The Killer Strain is the definitive account of the year in which bioterrorism became a reality in the United States, exposing failures in judgment and a flawed understanding of the anthrax bacteria's capacity to kill. With the pace and drama of fiction, this book goes behind the scenes to examine the confused, often bungled response by federal agencies to the anthrax attacks of 2001. It shows how the Bush administration's efforts to control information and downplay risk led to mistakes that ultimately cost two postal workers their lives.

Based on hundreds of hours of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of government documents, The Killer Strain reveals unsung victims and heroes in the anthrax debacle. It also examines the FBI's slow-paced investigation into the crimes and the unprecedented scientific challenges posed by the case. It looks into the coincidences of timing and geography that spurred the FBI's scrutiny of Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, a key "person of interest" for the authorities. Hatfill, a medical researcher turned "bioterror expert," proclaimed his innocence but spent most of 2002 under round-the-clock FBI surveillance. The Killer Strain is more than a thrilling read. It is a clarion wake-up call. It shows how billions of dollars spent and a decade of elaborate bioterror dress rehearsals meant nothing in the face of a real attack.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780756780531
Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
Publication date: 06/30/2003
Pages: 246
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)

About the Author

Marilyn W. Thompson is an award-winning investigative reporter and editor who has devoted her career to exposing government scandal. She is currently Assistant Managing Editor for Investigations at the Washington Post, where her investigative team has won two Pulitzer Prizes for public service. She is the author of Feeding the Beast: How Wedtech Became the Most Corrupt Little Company in America and the co-author along with Jack Bass of Ol' Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In the Field

October 19, 2001



By the time Leroy Richmond awoke, the lethal spores had settled into his lungs, but of course he did not know it. He felt hot and achy, and wondered if he might be coming down with the flu. It was before dawn on Friday, a regular workday at the U.S. Postal Service, and Richmond did not indulge thoughts of staying home. His wife, Susan, often complained that he was married to the job -- a "worka-holic" -- but he looked forward to each day of handling express mail at the cavernous Brentwood Mail Processing and Distribution Center in Washington, D.C.


Richmond slowly rolled out of bed and washed and dressed as usual, trying to ignore the erratic fever he had been battling for several days. He would feel bad and then suddenly better, a phenomenon known in the medical literature as an "eclipse." He had been treating his symptoms with common aspirin, a laughable remedy given the virulent nature of the bacteria infecting him, like confronting an attacking tiger with a pellet gun. The aspirin made him feel better, but the relief was perilously deceptive. Microscopic rod-shaped germs arrayed in long, narrow chains incubated in the warm recesses of his chest, mustering for a stealthy assault. Within hours, they would send two toxins surging through Richmond's bloodstream, poisons that could render powerless the most potent treatments. His lungs would bleed and swell with germ-clouded liquid. The pressure would threaten his heart, and he would drift in and out of consciousness, breathing weakly through a respirator. Statistically, he had a slim chance of beating the pathogen unleashed inside his body.


The clock read 2:50 A.M. as Richmond tiptoed through the dark, past polished tables filled with photographs of family, some of whom were still sleeping in the rooms behind him. His wife kept their two-story house immaculate, the white overstuffed furniture in the living room spotless, the dining-room table set as if for company, with cloth napkins tucked into crystal glasses. They had lived in the spacious home for seven years, a testament to their upward striving. Richmond, a tall, slender man born in Newport News, Virginia, had worked for USPS for thirty-two years, mostly at Brentwood and its predecessor on North Capitol Street. Brentwood was so full of old-timers that it felt like a second home. Everyone there called him Rich, never Leroy. He had met the feisty Susan there, working the line.


It was not an instant attraction. One day, a supervisor sent her over to help him manually sort mail. To the industrious Rich, all she seemed to do was complain. She was tired. She didn't feel well. Before long, he caught her catnapping.


He asked his boss not to send her over again. The next day, there she was, grumbling, napping, disappearing for long breaks. Rich asked her to speed up, and she shot him a cutting look and barked," You're not my supervisor!" Rich went back to the boss and suggested that he fire her.


Rich ran into Susan sometime later at a club, dancing, turning on the charm. He was mesmerized. He couldn't get her off his mind, her broad hips and beautiful braids. A fiery courtship began, and they were married in less than a year.


Now that their youngest child, Quentin, was seven, they found working alternate Brentwood shifts the best way of managing their hectic lives.The routine was taxing. Susan had come home from that night's shift and crawled into bed after 1 A.M., just before Rich's day began. She noticed him feebly dressing for work, coughing, looking gaunt and worn after several days of inexplicable tiredness. Not mincing words, she called out:


"You look like a crack addict! Where are you going?"


"Going to work." He sighed.


She scowled as he downed more aspirin and finished preparing to leave.


"Me?" she would say later, standing defiantly with hands on hips. "I take some medication and roll over. He'll have a hundred-and-two-degree fever and go to work!"


True, it had been years since Rich had called in sick. He was more likely to volunteer for overtime -- anything to keep the money rolling in.


Anyway, there seemed to be little use asking for time off from Brentwood's hard-line management. Unspoken tension divided the center between the almost exclusively African-American workforce, stationed behind chugging machines and conveyor belts, and the many white supervisors patrolling the production lines. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) touted its minority hiring as a sign of progressive management, but among some of the workers, the atmosphere so harkened back to the plantation days of the Old South that they derisively referred to Brentwood's floor as "the field."


Rich tried not to think in such stark racial terms. He only knew that the last time he had asked for time off, to attend his now-grown daughter's school play, his supervisor had scoffed at him. He had never asked for a favor again.


Besides, he took pride in postal work and knew he was good at it. Name a street address, a federal building or embassy anywhere in Washington, and he could rattle off the zip code from memory, the result of untold hours of training. Years ago, he had walked the streets of suburban Washington to stuff letters into mailboxes, so he knew first-hand that Americans took seriously the credo that "neither snow, nor rain" would stop the U.S. mail. There was something exhilarating about leaving a mailbox full of letters and colorful postcards, third-class catalogs and cumbersome junk mail, then watching expectant old ladies and children rush out the door to retrieve their surprises as he walked away. Sometimes, they peeked from behind curtains mysteriously, trying to speed the process. He was Santa Claus in a blue uniform ...

Table of Contents

The Eclipse
Chapter 1In the Field3
Chapter 2Red Sky at Morning21
Chapter 3Black Clouds over Detrick37
Chapter 4Enemies Among Us51
Chapter 5Walking Wounded61
The Attacks
Chapter 6The Index Case71
Chapter 7Mountain Streams and Spin85
Chapter 8Media Madness99
Chapter 9The Face of Satan109
Chapter 10Neither Snow, Nor Rain127
Chapter 11A Warning Ignored141
The Aftermath
Chapter 12Patterns and Puzzles153
Chapter 13Too Hot to Handle165
Chapter 14Taking Stock177
Chapter 15A Person of Interest189
Chapter 16Resignation and Redemption207
Chapter 17Home Again217

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