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Feds may close anthrax case

WASHINGTON - The chief suspect in the anthrax attacks now dead, the Justice Department is expected to decide within days whether to close what had been one of its most high-profile unsolved cases.

Five people died and 17 others were sickened when anthrax-laced letters began showing up at congressional offices, newsrooms and post offices soon after Sept. 11, 2001.

After wrongly investigating Army scientist Steven Hatfill, the FBI more than a year ago began looking at another suspect: Bruce E. Ivins, who worked at the same military lab. Ivins, a decorated scientist who was working on an anthrax cure, killed himself Tuesday.

David R. Franz, a former commander of the Army's biological warfare labs at Fort Detrick, Md., where Ivins worked, said Saturday he thought it was ""very important that the FBI present their case against Bruce and not just state that the investigation was over because it was him and he's gone.'

Franz added, ""I'm concerned about what closing this case without conclusive evidence might do to harm our life sciences enterprise. ... I think we as Americans need to see the proof.'

Prosecutors were mulling this weekend whether to tell a grand jury investigating evidence against Ivins to close the case. If that happens, court documents outlining the government's evidence are expected to be unsealed.

Two U.S. officials said victims and their survivors could be briefed as early as Tuesday on the final piece of the bioterrorism attacks that confounded the government.

The Justice Department attributed the break in the case to ""new and sophisticated scientific tools.' Investigators said the science focused, in part, on how the anthrax strains were handled and who had access to it at the time of the mailings.

Had the same process been used years ago, it would have cleared Hatfill, according to two people familiar with the FBI investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is not officially closed.

FBI profilers said they probably were looking for a loner with a scientific background. Maybe he had a grudge against the lawmakers and news organizations. Investigators also considered possible links to al-Qaida, the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

Intensive focus initially settled on Hatfill, who for years accused the government of unfairly targeting him. In late June, the government exonerated Hatfill and paid him a $5.82 million settlement.

With that, the government seemed no closer to solving the ""Amerithrax' mystery. But quietly, investigators were closing in on a different scientist, Ivins.

A murder indictment and the possibility of the death penalty would have produced a high-profile climax to the case. Shadowed by the FBI, Ivins died Tuesday from a Tylenol overdose, leaving the probe in limbo and a nation seeking answers.

""It's a shame the man is not here with us. We might have known more,' said Maureen Stevens, whose husband, Bob, was the first anthrax victim.

Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said, ""I think the FBI owes us a complete accounting of their investigation and ought to be able to tell us at some point how we're going to bring this to closure.' Daschle's office received a letter containing the deadly white powder in 2001.

Among the unanswered questions is why the anthrax was sent. The FBI was investigating whether Ivins, renowned for his work developing anthrax vaccines and treatment, released the toxin to test those cures. Ivins was one of several scientists named in an application for a vaccine patent 18 months before the attacks.