The Magazine

The Hunting of Steven J. Hatfill

Why are so many people eager to believe that this man is the anthrax killer?

Sep 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 01 • By DAVID TELL
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1 Who is Steven J. Hatfill?

Hatfill is a 48-year-old scientific researcher who specializes in emerging infectious diseases. Various details on his r sum -- to say nothing of a televised FBI raid on his apartment -- have inspired a mini-industry of speculation that he may somehow be implicated in last fall's deadly anthrax attacks. But as we shall see, much of that speculation pretends to be something more: certainty of his guilt, and certainty that in every nook and cranny of his life must be found some blot or scar or mark of the devil that proves his guilt. The evidence of his biography, that which is publicly available, cannot sustain such absolute conviction. But it is an unusual and interesting biography just the same.

Hatfill was born in St. Louis, attended high school in Mattoon, Illinois, and studied basic biology and chemistry at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. After graduating from Southwestern in June 1975, Hatfill served what Newsweek, citing "a copy of his military records," calls "a three-year stint in the Army, stationed in the United States." The Newark Star-Ledger, also claiming to have reviewed his personnel records, says Hatfill remained on some form of reserve or National Guard duty until January 1981, but by all accounts his regular Army active duty ended in the spring of 1978, and a few months later he moved to Africa, where he would live and work for the next 16 years.

Hatfill spent the first six of those years in Harare, earning his medical degree from what is now the University of Zimbabwe. In June 1984, he relocated to South Africa for his clinical internship and residency -- and for a decade's worth of additional study during which he was awarded three master's degrees (microbial genetics and recombinant DNA, medical biochemistry and radiation biology, and hematological pathology) and completed at least some of the work necessary for a doctorate in molecular cell biology. Hatfill finally left Africa in the summer of 1994 and spent a year doing clinical research at Oxford University before returning home to the States for good.

On a postgraduate training fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, Hatfill worked at NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, and other civilian federal laboratories until the fall of 1997. Then he took another two-year fellowship, this one from the National Research Council, to the nation's top biowarfare defense laboratory, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick in Maryland. There Hatfill investigated therapeutic responses to "filoviridae," the family of primate-borne tropical viruses, Ebola and Marburg specifically, that cause lethal hemorrhagic fever in humans. By the time Hatfill's Fort Detrick grant expired in September 1999, he had already undertaken related research at a private-sector laboratory in McLean, Virginia, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), which does federal biodefense work on contract.

SAIC fired him in March of this year shortly after a newspaper reporter phoned the company seeking a response to rumors that Hatfill, whose name had not yet dribbled into public view, was under FBI investigation in connection with last fall's anthrax murders. Eight months earlier, an unrelated CIA polygraph examination -- which reportedly generated unresolved questions about Hatfill's account of his life in Africa -- had led that agency to refuse him the "top-secret" security clearance necessary for certain SAIC projects. And, pending review of that refusal, Hatfill's basic-level "secret" clearance had been suspended, as well. The extent to which this security issue figured in SAIC's eventual decision to fire Hatfill remains unclear, however, and there are indications that SAIC may have been less than fully confident about the move; Hatfill's attorneys say the company later offered him a financial settlement, and the company itself has acknowledged having retained him, following his formal dismissal, as an outside consultant.

In any case, whatever the exact circumstances of his separation from SAIC, that incident alone had no immediately damaging effect on his career as a whole. Hatfill quickly found a new and important job as associate director of the National Center for Biomedical Research and Training at Louisiana State University. And it was to this new job in Baton Rouge that he was preparing a final move when, on August 1, the FBI -- with whose earlier anthrax-case inquiries Hatfill had, by all accounts, cooperated fully -- suddenly executed a court-issued criminal search warrant at his Frederick, Maryland, apartment. The raid was covered live on national television.