by Charles A. Monagan
Mar 7, 2012
11:56 AM
On Connecticut

The Threat is in the Mail


As the story broke today about three Connecticut schools that received envelopes containing mysterious white powder, it reminded me of this post I wrote back in October—

I saw a story last week in The New York Times about the anthrax killings that happened in the chaotic aftermath of 9/11, and how continued scientific analysis has not really brought about any completely satisfactory resolution to the case, despite the F.B.I.'s official closure of it. In fact, three scientists are suggesting that Bruce E. Ivins, the man who the F.B.I. has stated was the sole perpetrator, may not have created the deadly spores, an interesting claim since the F.B.I. itself has struggled to prove Ivins' guilt beyond modest doubt, let alone reasonable doubt.

If you recall, the mail-based attacks of September and October 2001, which targeted a few politicians and media outlets, injured 17 and killed five, including 94-year-old Ottile Lundgren of Oxford, whose mail apparently was cross-contanimated by anthrax spores meant for others.

A decade later, this case still stands as one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the 21st century. Although the F.B.I. was convinced it was Ivins who was responsible, as there was a lot of circumstantial evidence tying the scientist to the case, no direct evidence was ever produced. After deducing that the anthrax used most likely came from the lab in which Ivins worked, the F.B.I. made him the center of the investigation in 2005, placing him under constant surveillance. The pressure was more than the troubled Ivins could handle—he had undergone treatment from a number of mental health professionals for a range of psychological issues—and in 2008, Ivins committed suicide. 

As mentioned, the F.B.I. formally closed the case in February 2010, but the questions and the search for the truth continues in earnest. And like with any good conspiracy theory or mystery, the further we get away from the actual events, the more muddled they get by time, making it more and more unlikely the actual perpetrator of the attacks will ever be caught (if it wasn't Ivins).

Of course, lost in all the controversy around the case is that a sweet, innocent woman died unnecessarily. I think for many people, Ottilie Lundgren's death was really the most chilling of those who perished—here was a elderly lady who had never hurt a fly and was minding her own business in her quiet suburban home, yet she was a random victim in a possibly international murder plot. I remember at the time how, still reeling after the 9/11 attacks, it was made us all feel even more confused and vulnerable.

Even more upsetting for her and her family was that she had lived a very private life, yet in death, she was thrust into the headlines as well as into the midst of one of the most public F.B.I. investigations in recent history. I came across this great story from December 2001 in the Hartford Courant (although it's not hosted on the site anymore) about Ottilie. One line that jumped out at me was this: "The woman who had survived the worst the 20th century had to offer - two world wars, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, polio epidemics - died of inhalation anthrax amid a nationwide alarm over acts of biological terrorism using anthrax-tainted mail."

Even more amazing is that a decade later, the death of Ottilie Lundgren is no closer to being explained, or making sense.

The Threat is in the Mail

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