Can you ship the plague to Tanzania via FedEx ? Not if it's properly labeled, according to testimony in the trial of Texas Tech professor Thomas Butler as reported by the Lubbock Avalanche Journal.
Butler was charged with 69 criminal counts, including smuggling, lying to the FBI, illegal transportation of hazardous materials and fraud stemming from his shipment of 30 vials of plague bacteria to Tanzania. He had reported that they were stolen from his laboratory.
Butler, who had authored a paper titled "Pneumonic Plague: Delight of Terrorists", had labeled the contents of the package as "laboratory materials". His defense attorney argued that the label was correct in that the contents were in fact "laboratory materials". The prosecution quickly countered this argument with the assertion that while that may have been basically true, it did not accurately describe the deadly pathogen.
Update #1, 11/14/03: Pat Worsham, vice president in charge of clinical research for U.S. Army Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the Army's medical research branch, testified Thursday, 11/13/03, according to the Lubbock Avalanche Journal.
There was previous testimony that Butler had taken blood and tissue samples from infected Tanzanians in April 2002 and packed the samples in test tubes and put them in his luggage. Apparently, he checked the luggage aboard commercial airline flights without declaring the contents or following federal procedures, and he later came to USAMRIID in Fort Detrick, Md., with the samples in the trunk of his car.
"That didn't sit very well with me. Usually, when you ship select agents like this, you keep them in your possession at all times," she [Worsham] said. "To leave something unsecured and unescorted in a parking lot is not appropriate."
Worsham further testified that she was "horrified" at the packaging Butler had used when he brought the materials to the Army lab.
Butler placed petri dishes in a cardboard box filled with Styrofoam peanuts. Worsham described the container as "potentially dangerous."
There was also testimony that Butler had set up shadow contracts between Texas Tech Health Sciences Center and Pharmacia in which Butler would get half of the fee.
Update #2, 11/18/03: Testimony is continuing in the Thomas Butler trial with IRS Agent Mike Metzler telling the jury he discovered irregularities in Butler's previous tax statements.
Each year, Butler reported business expenses in excess of his income, Metzler said. The losses were described as part of Butler's consulting business, Metzler said.
After comparing Butler's financial papers with Butler's handwritten lab journal, Metzler said he found elements of deception in how Butler prepared his tax forms.
Four weeks after Metzler met with Butler and his attorney to discuss Metzler's investigation, Butler had amended tax forms professionally prepared to address Metzler's findings, Metzler said.
In addition to the other charges, Butler is charged with tax fraud.
Update #3, 11/20/03: The trial of Thomas Butler is continuing in Lubbock, and the final prosecution witness was Barbara Johnson, a bioterrorism expert with Science Applications International Corp.
"There are active, operating insurgent cells, terrorist cells, groups not limited to al-Qaida that operate and continue to operate in that part of Tanzania," Johnson said.
She testified that if a plague container breaks, the bacteria could potentially infect anyone who comes into contact with it, causing serious illness or death.
From the stand, she demonstrated how easy it is to break a petri dish, crushing the plastic item in her hand. Previous witnesses testified that Butler transported the confirmed plague samples in petri dishes packed in a cardboard box.
Johnson described a process by which the samples could be weaponized. Because the exact method is considered classified information, John son outlined the basic steps in converting YP to a deadly bioweapon.
Over the course of a few days using commercially available equipment, the bacteria can be turned into either a liquid or finely ground powder, she said.
Because the symptoms of pneumonic plague are similar to the flu and often hard to diagnose, those infected could spread the disease to virtually everyone with whom they come into contact.
"In a span of one to seven days ... you can be spreading this to family members, co-workers, people you're spending face-to-face time with," Johnson said.
Once the plague was diagnosed and the public became aware of the outbreak, hospitals would be overrun, she said.
"The effect this has on hospitals is it ties up services," she said. "It's difficult enough to make rapid diagnoses when you're not expecting this type of problem. ... Normal people become very concerned. They are concerned they all have the plague, they flood the hospitals, they take a huge toll on the caretakers."
Update #4, 11/20/03: Thomas Butler took the witness stand today at his trial in Lubbock. He said he discovered the samples missing on January 11 and searched his lab for them the next day before alerting his supervisor. And eventually the authorities were notified. Previous witnesses testified that Butler tried to discourage notifying police, but he denied that.
"My initial reaction was they were missing or could've been taken out by mistake, that they might be somewhere nearby where we could locate them," he said. "I thought a local investigation within Texas Tech would find them."
Update #5, 11/24/03: The prosecution and the defense rested today following three weeks of testimony. Mr. Butler's final words as a witness were "I am not guilty". Final arguments will begin at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, 11/25/03.
Update #6, 11/26/03: The attorneys for both sides made their closing arguments. Butler was accused of smuggling, lying to the FBI, embezzlement, theft and tax fraud. And, his attorney argued the "absent minded professor" defense:
"It's Dr. Butler's attitude, his belief that counts. It's not somebody else's," [defense attorney Chuck] Meadows said. "He's entitled to be wrong."
Meadows told the jurors that they must consider whether Butler intentionally broke the law when he brought plague samples back from Tanzania without proper permits. He also argued that Butler entered into split contracts with drug companies because Butler believed the contracts were legal.
"A mistake is not a lie," Meadows said. "It's not a lie unless they prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Dr. Butler did it intentionally to deceive.
The prosecution countered:
In a closing statement to jurors, prosecutor Michael Snipes compared the potential threat posed by the plague to that of a nuclear weapon.
"We're talking about something that in its own way is as serious as an atomic bomb," he said. "You don't have something like that and forget destroying it."
The jury began deliberations but was released for the holidays Tuesday afternoon. Deliberations will resume Monday, 12/1/03, at 8:30 a.m. Link.
Update #7, 12/1/03: Today, the jury found Thomas Butler guilty on 47 counts! Link.
Update #8, 12/2/03: Thomas Butler had been charged with 69 counts and was found guilty of 47 but acquitted of 22. He was charged with smuggling, tax fraud, theft, embezzlement and lying to the FBI. He was acquitted of the charges of tax fraud, smuggling and lying to the FBI. He was convicted of charges of theft from Texas Tech and violation of Department of Transportation rules for exporting. Lubbockonline:
He faces a maximum sentence of 240 years in prison and fines totaling $11.75 million, according to federal prosecutor Dick Baker.
Federal Judge Sam Cummings will decide Butler's punishment after a pre-sentencing report to be compiled over the next six weeks.
Update #9, 2/9/04: Thomas Butler, who was convicted of 47 counts in Federal Court related to his handling of the bubonic plague bacteria as well as his illegal financial dealings, has voluntarily relinquished his medical license, according to an article in Lubbockonline.com. He was scheduled to have had a hearing before the Texas Board of Medical Examiners on January 20, but it isn't clear whether the hearing actually took place. At any rate, a forfeiture of his license was probably a foregone conclusion, and perhaps he and his attorney wanted to save some time and expense.
Finally, Texas Tech will discontinue paying him his $130,467 annual salary. Butler and Tech appear to have reached a settlement in which Butler has agreed to pay Texas Tech an undisclosed sum of money, and he was allowed to resign from employment with the school. Link.
"With this settlement, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center considers all internal matters with Dr. Butler resolved and will pursue no further actions. We wish Dr. Butler well," the statement says.
Thanks to Dr. Roberts at Gruntdoc.com for the heads-up. And, it's useful to remember Dr. Roberts' insightful observation that the authorities would be well advised to keep close tabs on Dr. Butler's communications while he's in prison as he would be the go-to guy for anyone wanting to learn the tricks of the bubonic plague trade.
Update #10, 3/10/04: Thomas Butler, who was convicted in Federal Court in Lubbock on 47 criminal counts, was sentenced at around 1:30 p.m. today by Federal Judge Sam Cummings to two years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors this morning have pleaded their cases: the government asking for high fines and prison time, the defense emphasizing his lifelong dedication to saving lives through medicine and requesting leniency.
Cummings refused to levy the $750,000 restitution recommended in Butler's pre-sentencing report. Instead, Cummings found that the original estimated loss to Texas Tech was just over $288,000, and he credited the $250,000 that Butler has agreed to pay to Tech as part of his employment settlement with the university.
After a tearful plea from defense attorney Floyd Holder as well as emotional excerpts from letters of support, Cummings agreed to consider a lighter sentence than the range recommended by probation officers. Lubbockonline.
I have a feeling he won't appeal that ruling!
Update #11 - 4/13/04 Oops. I guessed wrong. He DID appeal. According to Lubbock Online he filed an appeal on March 24, 2004, with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The prosecution was undecided on whether to appeal.
"The Department of Justice will be reviewing its options to ascertain whether a cross appeal would be in the interests in justice," Assistant U.S. Attorney Dick Baker, a prosecutor in the case, told The Associated Press.
Prosecutors had argued for a much stiffer sentence, up to nine years.
And, on Mach 25, 2004, Mr. Butler filed a motion with the U.S. District Court requesting that he be released from jail pending the appeal. But, the judge ruled against it the following day. Source: AP via Lubbock Online.
[Note to Sara, yes I do look at other things besides Lubbock Avalanche Journal, but for this case, I believe it has been the best source of information. If you know of a better one, please let me know.]