Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Amerithrax 2001

A Deadly End to a Deadly Season

Kathy Nguyen
Kathy Nguyen
 

On October 28, 2001, a 61-year-old Vietnamese hospital worker, Xinh Thi (Kathy) Nguyen, was taken to New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital's emergency room. She was complaining of shortness of breath, flu-like symptoms and coughing up blood-tinged mucus.

Initially doctors suspected that she had heart problems. When it was discovered that her heart was not the source of the problem, they thought she might have developed pneumonia. However, when x-rays were taken of Nguyen's chest, they discovered that she had a widened mediastinum, which was symptomatic of inhalation anthrax. Immediately, doctors put her on cipro, but it was too late.

According to Denise Grady's article Tracking the Disease, Nguyen's breathing deteriorated and her blood pressure dropped, despite treatment. Moreover, her lungs and the sac around her heart filled with fluid. Eventually, her organs failed and on the fourth day after she was admitted to the hospital, she succumbed to the illness. Just one day earlier doctors had confirmed that she had inhalation anthrax, but by that time treatment was already useless.

FBI investigators tried to determine how Nguyen had come into contact with the disease. It was assumed that she contracted it from an anthrax-laden letter, yet they were unable to find any evidence of such a letter or spores in her mail. An examination of her Freeman Street apartment in the Bronx and Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital where she worked also failed to yield any evidence of anthrax.

By far, Nguyen's case was the most puzzling to investigators because her illness had not been directly linked with mail like the previous cases. In fact, according to an article by Kevin McCoy and Charisse Jones, exactly how she "came into contact with the lethal spores had baffled scores of detectives, scientists and public health experts." To date, the source of her infection remains unknown.

Ottilie Lundgren
Ottilie Lundgren
 

Approximately two weeks later, FBI investigators were baffled by another case that occurred in Connecticut. On November 16, 94-year-old Oxford resident Ottilie W. Lundgren was admitted to the hospital. She, like Nguyen, exhibited pneumonia-like symptoms. For days, doctors fought to keep her alive while they looked for the precise cause of her illness. On November 20, clinical tests determined that Lundgren had inhalation anthrax. By then it was too late; the following day she died from the disease.

Initially, investigators did not know how she could have contracted the disease. Then they realized that it was likely that she handled mail that was cross-contaminated by either the Daschle or Leahy letters, which had probably passed through the Trenton, New Jerseypostal facility on its way to the postal processing center in Wallingford, Connecticut, where her mail was also processed. Although there was no anthrax spores found at Lundgren's home, there were some found at the Wallingford postal facility, which later resulted in the site being closed down temporarily for decontamination.

Mrs. Lundgren was the last known victim of the 2001 anthrax outbreak. By the end of the year there were a total of twenty-two incidences of anthrax poisoning, of which nineteen cases had been confirmed and three cases suspected. However, no one had yet been charged with the distribution of anthrax-laden letters and the culprit's identity continued to elude investigators. Yet, in the summer of 2002 investigators claimed that they identified a "person of interest" possibly related to the anthrax poisonings. The person was Steven Hatfill.

 

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