Profile May 2010

The Wrong Man

In the fall of 2001, a nation reeling from the horror of 9/11 was rocked by a series of deadly anthrax attacks. As the pressure to find a culprit mounted, the FBI, abetted by the media, found one. The wrong one. This is the story of how federal authorities blew the biggest anti-terror investigation of the past decade—and nearly destroyed an innocent man. Here, for the first time, the falsely accused, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, speaks out about his ordeal.

Steven Hatfill was born on October 24, 1953, and raised with a younger sister in Mattoon, Illinois. His father designed and sold electrical substations. His mother dabbled in interior decorating. He studied piano, soloed a glider at 14, and wrestled for the varsity team in high school. By his own admission, he was a poor student. “I never took a book home,” Hatfill says. But he read plenty on his own, especially about science and the military. In 1971, he enrolled at Southwestern College, a small liberal-arts school in Kansas affiliated with the Methodist Church, where he majored in biology and signed up for a Marine Corps summer leadership course with dreams of piloting jet fighters. But when his vision was measured at less than 20/20, he opted out of the program rather than accept a navigator slot. Midway through his sophomore year, he left college and went to Africa.

Hatfill says he always wanted to help people in the developing world. He got his chance at a remote Methodist mission hospital in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he learned blood chemistry, parasitology, and basic hematology in a rudimentary lab. A year later, he returned to the United States; he graduated from Southwestern in 1975, and signed up for the Army.

He took a direct-enlistment option to join the Green Berets, attended parachute school, trained as a radio operator, and was assigned to the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. When a back injury eventually disqualified him from serving with an operational A-Team, Hatfill reentered civilian life. He joined the National Guard, married the daughter of a Methodist surgeon he had worked with in Africa, and returned to Mattoon to work the night shift as a security guard at a radiator factory. His marriage soon faltered. After they separated, his wife delivered their only child, a girl. Hatfill would not see his daughter for 27 years.

From 1978 to 1994, Hatfill lived in Africa. He earned a medical degree from the Godfrey Huggins School of Medicine in Salisbury, Rhodesia, and saw combat as a volunteer medic with the territorial forces of the Rhodesian army, eventually being attached to a unit called the Selous Scouts, which was renowned for its ruthlessness in battle. While he was in Rhodesia, Hatfill says, a truck he was riding in was ambushed by Marxist insurgents. Leaping from the truck, he landed on his face, badly breaking his nose. For decades afterward he would have trouble breathing—which is why, in September 2001, he finally elected to have surgery on his sinuses, an operation that would lead doctors to prescribe him Cipro, to guard against infection.

Following his medical internship in Africa, he spent 14 months as the resident physician at an Antarctic research base. He went on to obtain three master’s degrees in the hard sciences from two South African universities and finish a doctoral thesis in molecular cell biology that described a new marker for radiation-induced leukemia.

Hatfill returned once more to the United States in 1994. He painted barns for six months on his father’s horse farm before taking a one-year fellowship to study a cancer protein at Oxford University. He parlayed the Oxford fellowship into a job researching cancer, HIV, and Lyme disease at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. In September 1997, Hatfill accepted a two-year fellowship as a medical doctor and hematologist to study Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers at USAMRIID. He was earning $45,000 a year.

Part of his research involved fatal viral experiments on macaque monkeys. Sometimes, with permission from staff veterinarians, Hatfill would slip the animals Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to assuage his own guilt over helping cause them harm. He found his USAMRIID assignment both anguishing and rewarding. Some months, he never took a day off. “It’s altruism, in a way,” Hatfill says. “You’re trying to find cures for diseases to help people who have no other means of help. It was a privilege just to be there.”

The FBI would later speculate that Hatfill had somehow gained access to anthrax cultures while working at USAMRIID, perhaps through an inadvertently unlocked door. Drawing in part on the work of the Vassar professor Foster and the anti-bioweapons activist Rosenberg, federal investigators began trying to connect bits of circumstantial evidence, assembling them into a picture of Hatfill as the anthrax killer.

He’d been in Britain and Florida, respectively, when two letters with fake anthrax were mailed from those locations. His girlfriend was Malaysian-born—and a hoax package had been sent from Malaysia to a Microsoft office in Nevada. He’d been in Africa during a major anthrax outbreak in the late 1970s. Rhodesia’s capital city has that suburb called Greendale—and, as noted, “Greendale School” was the return address on the anthrax letters sent to Daschle and Leahy. He’d written that unpublished novel, which Don Foster had unearthed, about a bioterror attack on Washington. He was close to Bill Patrick, widely recognized as the father of America’s bioweapons program, whom he’d met at a conference on bioterror some years earlier. And, of course, he’d taken Cipro just before the anthrax attacks.

The government became convinced all of it had to amount to something.

It didn’t.

The FBI’s sleuthing had produced zero witnesses, no firm evidence, nothing to show that Hatfill had ever touched anthrax, let alone killed anyone with it. So thin was the bureau’s case that Hatfill was never even indicted. But that didn’t stop the FBI from focusing on him to the virtual exclusion of other suspects.

In law enforcement, there is a syndrome known as “detective myopia.” Former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates told me he suspected that FBI agents had succumbed to this condition, becoming so focused on Hatfill that they lost their objectivity. “This mostly happens when the case is important and there is pressure to solve it,” Gates says. “In the case of the FBI, the pressure most certainly can be, and is, political. When a congressman may be a victim of anthrax—well, the case needs to be solved or the suspect made impotent.”

Special Agent Harp, who initially headed the anthrax investigation, conceded after Hatfill sued the government in August 2003 that the FBI had been sensitive to accusations that it had stumbled in other high-profile investigations, and that it had consciously sought to assure the public that it was working hard to crack the anthrax murders. Part of providing such assurance involved actively communicating with news reporters. Questioned under oath, Harp admitted to serving as a confidential source for more than a dozen journalists during the case, but he insisted that he had never leaked privileged information about Hatfill, or anyone else for that matter.

Hatfill’s attorney has his doubts. After taking Harp’s deposition, Connolly says, he went home and half-jokingly told his wife, “We’re building a bomb shelter. If these are the guys in charge of our national security, we’re all in serious trouble.”

In their own depositions, both John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller, the FBI director, said they had expressed concern to underlings about news leaks that appeared to single out and smear Hatfill. Both, however, denied any knowledge of who specifically was doing the leaking.

In August of 2002, following the searches of his apartment, Hatfill held two press conferences to proclaim his innocence. He offered to undergo, and eventually took, blood and handwriting tests in an attempt to help clear his name. “I want to look my fellow Americans directly in the eye and declare to them, ‘I am not the anthrax killer,’” Hatfill told reporters. “I know nothing about the anthrax attacks. I had absolutely nothing to do with this terrible crime. My life is being destroyed by arrogant government bureaucrats who are peddling groundless innuendo and half-information about me to gullible reporters, who in turn repeat this to the public in the guise of news.”

One newspaper reporter even called Boo’s former in-laws in Canada, inquiring whether Hatfill had had anything to do with the death of her late husband—who had succumbed to a stroke a year before Boo met Hatfill. The call, Boo says, prompted her former brother-in-law to fly to Washington and demand, “What are you doing, living with this murderer?”

Months passed with Hatfill cloistered in Boo’s condominium, watching television and drinking alone. He binged on chocolate and fried chicken, putting on weight, growing too lethargic and depressed to even get on the bathroom scale. He developed heart palpitations. He wondered whether he was losing his mind.

Remembering what her boyfriend was like back then, Boo grows emotional. “I got tired of cleaning up your vomit,” she tells him over dinner at an Indian restaurant down the street from her condo. Tears stream down her cheeks. Hatfill chokes up too, the trauma still raw nearly eight years later.

“Every human being has to feel a part of a tribe,” he explains. “It’s programmed into us. And you have to feel that you’re contributing to something. They tried to take all that away from me. No tribe wanted me. I just didn’t feel of value to anything or anyone. I had Boo. Boo was my only tribe.”

The next morning, driving through Georgetown on the way to visit one of his friends in suburban Maryland, I ask Hatfill how close he came to suicide. The muscles in his jaw tighten.

“That was never an option,” Hatfill says, staring straight ahead. “If I would’ve killed myself, I would’ve been automatically judged by the press and the FBI to be guilty.”

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David Freed is a screenwriter and former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, where he shared in a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1992 Rodney King riots.

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