Aug. 15 — Anthrax spores were found in a mailbox this week on Nassau Street, bringing the FBI's investigation back to Princeton. Agents have been canvassing the area with a photograph of Stephen Hatfill, a biologist who once worked in a U.S. Army bioweapons lab, asking employees at local stores whether or not they have seen the man before.
The mailbox, which was located across the street from Holder Hall, has been replaced, and state authorities say they consider present health risks minimal. But the finding has renewed hope that the investigation, which began in October, will eventually succeed in finding the mailer of the anthrax letters. Four of the letters were postmarked near Princeton. Out of about 600 mailboxes examined by the FBI, the Nassau Street box is the only one that has tested positive. State officials removed the box this past Thursday, but the first announcement of the finding was not made until Monday, by New Jersey governor James McGreevey. The FBI also began canvassing the Princeton area on Monday.
The University does not do any research on anthrax, according to both biology faculty and University Communications Office. The school lacks a P3 laboratory — the type of facility that provides the secure environment for systematic research on highly infectious human diseases.
The contaminated Nassau Street mailbox does not prove that any of the anthrax letters were sent from Princeton. The box holds both incoming and outgoing mail — individuals deposit letters to be sent, and the postal service uses the box to store sorted, incoming letters addressed to local residents. An incoming letter that had been through the same sorting equipment as one of the anthrax letters might have carried the spores to Princeton. It is also possible, however, that an outbound letter could have left the spores behind. The FBI has not said which part of the mailbox was the source of the spores or if spores could have spread from the inbound to the outbound part of the box.
Field testing sometimes leads to false positives, and does not yield a great deal of information. FBI agents are still waiting for more detailed test results, and do not yet know whether the anthrax they have found is the same U.S. military strain found in letters last fall. It is not clear what prompted the bureau to start testing mailboxes. Bill Evanina, a special agent in Newark, said all the boxes the bureau is testing are in the area that was served by the Hamilton sorting facility, which was closed last fall after spores were found on sorting equipment.
Most merchants who were shown a picture of Hatfill did not recognize him, although several said he looked familiar from television accounts. An employee at Buck's County Coffee Co. on Palmer Square told agents she believes he once came into the store for coffee, the store's manager confirmed yesterday. But few others seemed to think he had been in the area before.
Hatfill has been a focus of attention since he was linked to the anthrax investigation by Barbara Rosenberg, a scientist conducting an independent investigation into the attacks. Rosenberg gave a speech at the Woodrow Wilson School in February in which she claimed that most insiders agree on the identity of the anthrax perpetrator. She did not name a suspect, but did offer some details about the person's past: a veteran of the American bioweapons program, with experience producing anthrax and a current vaccination against the disease. She also said the person was also angry at the government, and was trained in how to cover his forensic tracks.
Since that speech, more attention has been paid to Hatfill, who fits many of Rosenberg's criteria. He once worked at USAMRIID, the Army's top bioweapons lab. His work focused on viruses, but a copy of his Curriculum Vitae obtained by the Daily Princetonian lists a working knowledge of weaponized bacteria production among his skills. He once commissioned a study on the effects of sending anthrax through the mail as part of his work for a government contractor, and was repeatedly vocal before 9/11 about the need to pay more attention to the threat of biological attack.
Hatfill's extreme history has also fueled speculation that he might be behind the mailings. In the 1970's he lived in Africa, serving in the army of white-run Rhodesia. He has reportedly boasted to friends that he was part of the Selous Scouts, an elite group that tried to stamp out resistance to white rule. The largest known anthrax outbreak, claiming more than 11,000 lives, occurred during the Rhodesian civil war, and experts who have studied the outbreak believe the white government may have been responsible.
Even his smell links him to the crime. Bloodhounds — whose highly developed sense of smell is admissible as evidence in court — reportedly found the same scent in Hatfill's home and on one of the anthrax letters.
But no physical evidence has been found to link Hatfill to the letters. Last weekend, Hatfill convened a press conference to respond for the fist time to the allegations, calling himself a "fall guy" for an as yet unsolved crime. He blames the FBI for feeding speculation about him to the media, including tipping off TV crews before searching his home and giving journalists a copy of a novel he wrote whose plot centered on a biological attack.
FBI officials say they are wary of jumping to conclusions, and deny they have settled on Hatfill. Rather than describe him as a suspect — which would require special legal treatment — they call him a "person of interest," a category they say includes about 30 others. Editor's Note: This breaking story was appended to the May 17th issue of The Daily Princetonian's online edition at 12:35 AM on August 16th.