Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Amerithrax 2001

Deadly Letters

On October 14, 2001, a 56-year-old postal worker for New Jersey's Hamilton regional mail processing plant, Norma Wallace, was treated at the hospital for flu-like symptoms accompanied with chest pains. Following clinical tests, it was discovered that Wallace had contracted inhalation anthrax. It was believed that she contracted the disease while on duty, sometime on or around October 9. She was treated with antibiotics and, after almost a month in the hospital, she was released.

Norma Wallace
Norma Wallace

On the same day Wallace had initially checked into the hospital, a colleague of hers, Patrick O'Donnell, began to develop a reddened lesion on his neck. Although cold-like symptoms accompanied the wound, it was believed that the symptoms were harmless. Yet, on October 16 he was admitted to the hospital when the lesion and symptoms intensified. His symptoms were caused by cutaneous    anthrax and he was quickly treated for the disease. He made a full recovery.

Another Hamilton Township postal worker, Jyotsna Patel, also developed mysterious symptoms at around the same time as Wallace and O'Donnell. It was discovered that she too suffered from inhalation anthrax. Fortunately, she was treated in the early stages of the disease and managed to escape death.

The last New Jersey resident that fell victim to anthrax poisoning was a 51-year-old woman named Linda Burch, who also worked in Hamilton Township. She was an accountant who contracted the cutaneous form of the disease the day after Patel sought medical care. It was believed that she had been infected by contaminated mail. Luckily, she too eventually recovered from the disease.

While investigators were dealing with the rash of anthrax outbreaks in New Jersey, another series of outbreaks occurred in the Washington, D.C., area. They would prove to be more deadly than the New Jersey outbreak. In fact, it would claim two lives within two days.

Brentwood Mail facility
Brentwood Mail facility
 

The first case of anthrax exposure in the Washington, D.C., area occurred in mid-October at the Brentwood Mail Processing and Distribution Center where 56-year-old Leroy Richmond was employed. On October 16, Richmond began to develop flu-like symptoms that began to steadily worsen over the subsequent three days. According to a Baltimore Sun article by Gary Dorsey, Richmond's wife Susan feared that he could have been exposed to anthrax-laden letters. After all, in the news that day they learned that an anthrax letter had been sent to Sen. Tom Daschle's office. It was believed that the letter passed through the mail processing plant where her husband worked. She urged her husband to seek medical attention, which he did on October 19. It was a move that saved his life.

Thomas Morris Jr.
Thomas Morris Jr.
 

Richmond had contracted inhalation anthrax. He came very close to death, but he managed to pull through. Two of his friends and co-workers were not so lucky. He learned while in the hospital that 55-year-old Thomas Morris Jr., another postal worker at the Brentwood facility, succumbed to the inhalation form of the disease on October 21. Another of Richmond's friends, 47-year-old Joseph Curseen Jr., also fell ill from inhalation anthrax. He passed away from the disease the following day, on October 22, 2001.

Joseph Curseen Jr.
Joseph Curseen Jr.
 

The deaths of Curseen and Morris sent shock waves through the community and the country. Many were beginning to question the FBI, CDC and postal service's ability to handle the ongoing anthrax crisis. It became increasingly apparent that something had to be done and quickly in order to prevent more unnecessary deaths or infections.

At the time, the questions concerning the attacks far outnumbered the answers. There were no prime suspects, no fingerprints and no known motive. Investigators worked around the clock in a search for any clues that might bring them closer to the person(s) involved in the poisonings. In the meantime, government offices were becoming the new targets. The investigation at this point gained more momentum in a desperate effort to catch the infamous anthrax assassin.

 

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