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The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks, and America's Rush to War

The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks, and America's Rush to War

by David Willman

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For the first time, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist David Willman tells the whole gripping story of the hunt for the anthrax killer who terrorized the country in the dark days that followed the September 11th attacks. Letters sent surreptitiously from a mailbox in New Jersey to media and political figures in New York, Florida, and Washington D.C. killed five


For the first time, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist David Willman tells the whole gripping story of the hunt for the anthrax killer who terrorized the country in the dark days that followed the September 11th attacks. Letters sent surreptitiously from a mailbox in New Jersey to media and political figures in New York, Florida, and Washington D.C. killed five people and infected seventeen others. For years, the case remained officially unsolved—and it consumed the FBI and became a rallying point for launching the Iraq War. Far from Baghdad, at Fort Detrick, Maryland, stood Bruce Ivins: an accomplished microbiologist at work on patenting a next-generation anthrax vaccine. Ivins, it turned out, also was a man the FBI consulted frequently to learn the science behind the attacks.

The Mirage Man reveals how this seemingly harmless if eccentric scientist hid a sinister secret life from his closest associates and family, and how the trail of genetic and circumstantial evidence led inexorably to him. Along the way, Willman exposes the faulty investigative work that led to the public smearing of the wrong man, Steven Hatfill, a scientist specializing in biowarfare preparedness whose life was upended by media stakeouts and op-ed-page witch hunts. 

Engrossing and unsparing, The Mirage Man is a portrait of a deeply troubled scientist who for more than twenty years had unlimited access to the U.S. Army’s stocks of deadly anthrax. It is also the story of a struggle for control within the FBI investigation, the missteps of an overzealous press, and how a cadre of government officials disregarded scientific data while spinning the letter attacks into a basis for war. As The Mirage Man makes clear, America must, at last, come to terms with the lessons to be learned from what Bruce Ivins wrought.  The nation’s security depends on it.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Willman, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, offers a nuanced account of the bungled FBI investigation into the "anthrax attacks" as the Bush administration strove to use the public panic to strengthen their case to go to war, while the culprit was, in all likelihood, a military microbiologist named Bruce Ivins. Willman traces Ivins's unhappy life, how he endured childhood abuse and privation to become a successful scientist only to find his life unraveling as a result of his bizarre obsessions and fixations with women—from co-workers to a reality TV star and members of a local campus sorority. Willman pivots to focus on the flawed investigation—how the FBI targeted terrorist groups and, later, the wrong scientist, Steven Hatfill—and how, perversely, Ivins benefited both financially and professionally from the public paranoia about anthrax as his research into an anthrax vaccine became a national priority. Willman makes the case against Ivins—and against the political uses of the case—with admirable fair-mindedness and narrative flair. (July)
From the Publisher
Advance praise for The Mirage Man
“Finely drawn sketches of the individuals and forensics involved in a case that vexed investigators, politicians and the general public. A well-told true-crime story with vast ramifications.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Willman, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, offers a nuanced account of the bungled FBI investigation…Willman makes the case against Ivins—and against the political uses of the case—with admirable fair-mindedness and narrative flair.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

The Mirage Man is a mystery story about murder committed on the national stage. The characters include an innocent man hounded by investigators and the press, politicians fixated on justifying a foreign invasion, a mixed bag of FBI agents, and scientists who try to crack the code. And, at the story’s heart, we have a twisted villain whose secret life is laid utterly bare. Unlike most mysteries, this one is literally true, carefully documented and skillfully told by one of America’s finest investigative journalists.”—John S. Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times
“This is a book of alternative history and alternative truth about one of the most misrepresented incidents of our 9/11 trauma. David Willman has set a grand standard for investigative reporting—and investigative history—in his account of America’s anthrax scare. There are few heroes in this story of psychosis, official dithering, and political scaremongering, but it is uplifting nonetheless. It is simply fun to read someone at the top of his craft.”—Seymour M. Hersh, author of Chain of Command:The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib
“Peering through David Willman’s magnifying glass into the anthrax-laced heart and soul of Bruce Ivins is chilling. Willman’s investigative chops and skilled yarn-weaving make for a compelling read. Most strikingly, Willman shows how this emotionally warped man pumped the bellows that fanned the flames of war with Iraq. It’s a haunting and heartbreaking tale.’’—Mark Thompson, national security correspondent, Time

Library Journal
Willman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Los Angeles Times reporting on the anthrax attacks, here provides a highly detailed account of the federal government's investigation of the series of letters laced with deadly anthrax spores that were sent out just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The contents of the letters killed five people and injured many more. After years of focusing the investigation on a scientist who was eventually cleared of all charges, the FBI, Willman believes, finally got its man. But the chief suspect, Bruce Ivins, a government anthrax expert who worked for the U.S. Army in Maryland, committed suicide before he was brought to trial. Willman presents a strong case of circumstantial evidence that Ivins was indeed the anthrax killer. But, he concedes, some doubt remains. More important, the book reveals serious shortcomings in the nation's law enforcement and national security bureaucracy. VERDICT Willman has produced an impressive piece of investigative journalism that will be of interest to all Americans but particularly to those involved in national security, law enforcement, and civil liberties.—Robert Bruce Slater, Stroudsburg, PA
Kirkus Reviews

An investigative journalist provides an in-depth exploration of the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, finding that quite a few people did not acquit themselves well.

In his first book, Pulitzer Prize–winning Los Angeles Times reporter Willman painstakingly recounts the mysterious mailings of anthrax spores to various media and political figures in the weeks after 9/11. When news of the attacks came to light, they seemed to represent a piece of a larger plot by still-undefined enemies. Willman focuses on Bruce Ivins, an obscure scientist working on developing anthrax vaccines in a military lab in Maryland. On the surface, Ivins appeared to be quirky and socially awkward. But there were disturbing currents running beneath the surface—he suffered from mental-health issues and had longstanding obsessions with institutions such as a national college sorority, whose members he stalked and harassed. Much of the narrative reads like a brief for the prosecution, but in the process of trying to get to the bottom of the anthrax attacks, Willman makes clear that many involved in the investigation acted incompetently, maliciously or irresponsibly, including cocksure but ignorant members of the national media and FBI officials, who seem to have settled on the guilt of another obscure scientist, thus doing harm to the investigation by limiting its purview. Willman also examines another consequence of the anthrax attacks: They helped clear the way for the Bush administration's war in Iraq. Though less successful in this argument, the author offers finely drawn sketches of the individuals and forensics involved in a case that vexed investigators, politicians and the general public.

A well-told true-crime story with vast ramifications.

Dina Temple-Raston
Willman…provides the first behind-the-scenes account of one of the most far-reaching investigations in the history of the FBI, and shows how circumstantial evidence and innuendo added to the expensive and ultimately unsatisfying conclusion of the case.
—The Washington Post

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt


She Would Kill You

For most of the twentieth century, Lebanon, Ohio, embodied the small- town America of Norman Rockwell. It was a place where doors were left unlocked, where kids roamed without fear. The shops in the well- scrubbed downtown were family-owned. Malts and burgers were served at the soda fountains on Broadway. On the same street, Ohio’s oldest inn and restaurant, the Golden Lamb, boasted of having entertained ten U.S. presidents, not to mention Henry Clay and Charles Dickens.

Founded as a stagecoach stop in the state’s southwest corner, midway between Cincinnati and Dayton, the town of Lebanon (“LEBB-in-in”) grew into a bedroom community of several thousand. Farm kids mixed with classmates whose parents worked for National Cash Register, General Motors, and Frigidaire in Dayton, for General Electric or the German- family breweries in Cincinnati, the Armco Steel plant in Middletown, and the paper mills in Franklin.

Lebanon’s nicest neighborhoods were just south of downtown, across the double-arch Turtle Creek Bridge, built in 1897. The first cross street up the hill from the bridge was Orchard Avenue, home to prominent families, including doctors and for a number of years the town’s only municipal court judge.

The second-generation proprietor of Ivins-Jameson Drugs, a Lebanon fixture with roots in the nineteenth century, also landed on Orchard Avenue. T. Randall Ivins—the T. stood for Thomas but most everyone called him Randall—had been in no particular hurry to take on the mantle of the family business. Born in 1905 in Lebanon, Randall was raised on the high ground above Turtle Creek, known as South Broadway Hill. His was a childhood that could have been scripted by Mark Twain. He and his pals filled summer days with baseball in an open lot; they rode the trolley to the outskirts of Cincinnati to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Their favorite swimming hole was a clear-water stream within walking distance of their homes, in the woods of McBurney Hills. There they fished and made use of an aptly shaped tree stump to stash their corncob pipes and tobacco.

Randall left Ohio after the seventh grade to attend Princeton Preparatory School in New Jersey; he later majored in journalism at Wilmington College of Ohio and psychology at Princeton University. After graduating he worked as a cub reporter at the Commercial Tribune in Cincinnati, and as a public school teacher, eventually serving as principal of Lebanon’s elementary school. It was said that his time as an educator had not been entirely successful—he was simply too nice, incapable of imposing or maintaining discipline.1

In December 1933, Randall married twenty-six-year-old Mary Johnson Knight, a petite brunette who had earned a four-year degree in home economics from Florida Women’s State College. Family lore held that the Knights were original settlers at Jamestown, that their genes were the stronger for having survived its hardships. Mary grew up in Brandon, Florida, near Tampa. She and Randall had met while he was vacationing in the North Florida Panhandle.2 Shortly after marrying, the new couple set about planning a family, and they hired an architect to build a home, at 26 Orchard Avenue, just around the corner from where Randall had grown up. The structure was single story with European flourishes, notably an ornamental turret that rose to the right of the front door.

With his marriage to Mary, Randall decided on a career in pharmacy. He enrolled in classes at the University of Cincinnati to get his state license and he began working at Ivins-Jameson Drugs, the family store founded in 1893 and still operated by his father, C. Wilbur Ivins, a charter member of the Lebanon Rotary Club. Randall had arrived none too soon. In January 1938, C. Wilbur died from a stroke while wintering with his wife in Sarasota, Florida. The store was left in the hands of his son and Clarence Jameson, whom the elder Ivins had trained and had taken on as his partner nineteen years earlier.

On April 22, 1946, Mary gave birth to the couple’s third and final child, Bruce Edwards Ivins. His older siblings were Thomas, eleven, and Charles, “C.W.,” seven. Bruce would learn how to avoid Tom, who C.W. later suspected had grown to prefer the status of only child.3

Their brother, however, was not their biggest concern. Mary Ivins was prim, and comfortable using force to get her way. She was more than willing to impose whatever discipline the kindly Randall might shy away from. Her eruptions were frequent and could not always be predicted, though Bruce could see that C.W. made it a top priority to try to anticipate what was most likely to set her off.4

The Ivinses were well off by local standards and lived comfortably, while buying nothing on credit. The parents drove what C.W. called “ocean liners,” the heavy, smooth-riding sedans that defined the golden age of Detroit’s Big Four. Color photographs captured some of the family’s early moments together, including Christmas Eve 1947. Bruce, one year, eight months, is seen pressing keys on the family grand piano while his brothers watched. A snapshot from a year later shows C.W., Tom, and, to the right, Bruce, tightly clutching his brown teddy bear.5 By first grade, Bruce had devised an unusual way to play with it and other stuffed animals. He put blindfolds on them.6

Mary hovered over her youngest son, closely monitoring his academic progress and his interactions with other children. During his elementary school years, she always served as a room mother to Bruce’s class. She and Randall also hosted elaborate, well-attended Halloween parties for Bruce and his classmates.

Apart from the gaiety of those parties, Mary Ivins ran the household like a boot camp. Her maxim for child rearing: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” C.W. later explained, “Mom was one of these people that you had to justify your actions. So we learned always to have a reason for doing anything. If you acted on impulse you were gambling that you were going to get hit by lightning by impulse, too.”7

Piano lessons were mandatory, and so was worship. Although Mary had been raised in the Southern Baptist church, she disliked the local Baptist preacher, so she and her sons attended Lebanon Presbyterian, where Pastor J. Taylor McHendry, “Little Mac,” presided. After church each Sunday, the boys were required to wear their suits and ties for a midday meal in the family’s formal dining room, outfitted with mahogany furnishings, a Czech chandelier, and French wallpaper with velvetlike flocking. “If Mom ever caught you feeling it, she would kill you,” C.W. recalled. “Mom could explode. She didn’t know about the sliding switch that could adjust the illumination. It was either on or off. She inflicted terror on all of us.”8

During summers Mary Ivins would load Bruce and C.W. into the family sedan and set out on weeks-long excursions while Randall stayed behind in Lebanon. She designed the trips to educate her two youngest sons about American history and geography. Mary’s snapshots document some of the places they visited: the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, Yellowstone National Park, the Colorado Rockies, the Badlands in South Dakota, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.9 There also was a trip, in 1956, in which the family traveled through Princeton, New Jersey.10

C.W. was a partial buffer between Bruce and their mother. “She just made him feel on edge, like she did everybody else,” recalled Martha Leuzinger, who worked at the drugstore and saw a lot of Mary Ivins.11 When C.W. went to college, by which time Tom had been out of the house for several years, Bruce was left behind in a household thoroughly dominated by his mother, his home life grimmer than ever as he prepared to enter the sixth grade.

When her husband’s older business partner, Clarence Jameson, died in 1959, Mary, who had been working part-time at the pharmacy, consolidated her influence at the renamed Ivins Drugs. She fired anyone she felt didn’t meet her standards. While Randall continued to mix and fill the prescriptions, Mary took control of everything else. Always formally dressed, her hair set in a wave, she built up what was, for small-town Lebanon, a lavish line of high-end cosmetics, including Chanel No. 5. She made sure that the other products, including the cigars, the refrigerated display of Whitman’s Samplers, and the horehound candy drops, kept up front in a wooden barrel, remained in ample supply.

“When she came in, everybody was on their toes,” said Jacqueline Sams, a student Mary had recruited as a part-time employee and whose brother was Bruce’s friend. “You didn’t know what was going to set her off.”12

One day she spotted a rumpled man sitting outside on the concrete steps and, obviously, down on his luck. As the store clerks watched, Mrs. Ivins filled a bucket with water, calmly strode out to the steps, pretended to stumble, and thoroughly drenched the man.13 On another occasion, suspecting that a couple of boys had done some minor vandalism to the Ivins residence, she waited until nightfall and, dressed in a disguise, splashed paint onto the side of the house where one of them lived.14

Bruce was a physically and socially awkward child, “Bruce the Goose,” as his irreverent classmate Larry Buchanan nicknamed him. A story from his grade school years recounts the time he was playing softball and got thwacked in the head by the ball, batted not by anyone resembling slugger Ted “Big Klu” Klus-zewski of the hometown Cincinnati Reds, but by a bookish and bespectacled girl, fellow fourth grader Elaine Kraus.15

While Randall Ivins had wandered freely as a boy, his youngest son was more comfortable with a chemistry set. Bruce took to wearing a plastic pocket protector, and he talked in rapid-fire bursts. He treasured the expensive microscope his parents bought him and he featured it in his ninth-grade science project. The instrument elevated Bruce from the crowd—enabling him to see things that his classmates could not with their hobby-grade microscopes. When he walked he leaned forward from the waist, as if propelled by an inner purpose. He was a teenager so preoccupied that he didn’t seem to notice what some classmates remember to this day—the persistent knots of mucus suspended in his nostrils. With rare exception, he moved about Lebanon alone.16

Many of his peers at Lebanon High School found Bruce to be uncommonly high-strung, a boy who craved approval, yet struggled to fit in. Bob Edens passed by the Ivins residence every weekday afternoon and on weekends, delivering the Dayton Daily News on his sturdy Schwinn. Edens, a good enough student himself, thought Bruce was uniquely strange. “He was very intelligent and made sure that everyone around him knew it,” Edens recalled. “He was a pain in the ass. He had an inability to become a part of the group in a natural way. So he would act out to get attention in weird ways. It was, ‘I’m here. Notice me.’ . . . He had no sense of normalcy. He was just a highly wound individual.”17

Another classmate, Lana Neeley, a neighbor on Orchard Avenue, described what happened one day when her mother asked her to deliver something to the Ivins home. Lana was invited in, and as she waited for Mrs. Ivins, “Bruce asked me if I wanted to come down to the basement and see the gunpowder he’d just made.” Lana, then fourteen, declined. She told her mother she would never set foot in the Ivins house again.18

One of Bruce’s warmest relationships at Lebanon High was with a teacher, Dean Deerhake, a rail-thin man with a flattop haircut who crackled with enthusiasm. Deerhake taught junior year chemistry, and Bruce, who had excelled in biology the year before, was one of his top students. Ivins did not join the crowd easily, if at all, Deerhake recalled. “Some of the questions he would ask would cause some of the other students to turn their heads. He was different. A little bit out in left field.”

Deerhake himself was a bit different. He wouldn’t hesitate to stand on a desk if he thought it might strike a chord with his charges. It was Deerhake who persuaded Bruce to try the cross-country team, which he coached after school. Cross-country provided a team framework for a solitary activity: training regularly over long distances and running two miles on race day through the Ohio countryside. Bruce Ivins wasn’t fast enough to race with the varsity, but in the fall of 1963, his senior season, he once finished with a time of 13:47, placing him thirteenth among forty or more “reserve,” or junior varsity, runners.19

As Bruce’s teacher and coach, Deerhake got to know his parents. He found Mary immediately intimidating, Randall just the opposite. The summer before Bruce’s senior year, Randall approached Deerhake with a proposition, no doubt made possible by one of the pharmaceutical salesmen who regularly called upon Ivins Drugs: Would Mr. Deerhake be interested in driving Bruce up to the drug company’s manufacturing plant in Michigan, for an insider’s tour? It would be about a four- hour drive each way, entailing an overnight stay. The payoff would be a scientific opportunity for student and teacher—a chance to observe firsthand the conversion of raw materials to finished medical products.

Deerhake said yes, and he and his wife drove Bruce to the plant in their blue Ford Custom sedan. They saw a movie (West Side Story), and Bruce seemed to relax on the road with the cheerful Deerhakes. He fit in as if he was their son.20

Bruce’s isolation as a teenager was magnified by his struggle to communicate with the opposite sex. “He was just a loner. He was so backward with women,” said classmate Patricia McDaniel.21 His plight wasn’t made any easier by his self-consciousness about his looks. Gaunt, with a forehead that rose tall and flat, his profile was unmistakable. He was not considered a handsome young man. “His nose wouldn’t be taken care of. He was just a duckling,” said Ellen Leuzinger who was a year younger.22

In his pained social interactions at Lebanon High, Bruce was operating, as in most aspects of his life, in the long shadow of his mother. One of the few schoolgirls with whom he was friendly was Elaine Kraus, the same Elaine whose batted ball had hit Bruce in the head in the fourth grade. Whip-smart and toughened by life on her parents’ hundred-acre farm, Elaine was on a college-prep track, like Bruce. Both were members of the Current Events Club and the school newspaper staff, and they took part in campus stage productions.

Elaine, like so many others, viewed Bruce as nervous, hyper, “almost socially backward.” She noticed that sweat would bead on his forehead and he would become so stressed he could hardly sit still. To his “Bruce the Goose,” she was “Elaine the Brain.” Proud nerds before the term had currency, they were buddies of a sort, though Elaine felt no romantic attraction to him. And Bruce never hinted at such to her. None of which deterred Mary Ivins. “I don’t know why you and Bruce aren’t going out. You know, the two of you ought to get married.” Elaine heard this from Mrs. Ivins whenever she saw her.23

Meet the Author

David Willman is a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist whose reporting for the Los Angeles Times brought to light the pivotal developments surrounding the 2001 anthrax letter attacks.

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