Professor charged in plague inquiry

Published: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 10:02 p.m.
LUBBOCK, Texas - The government charged a Texas Tech University professor with lying to investigators Thursday, saying he accidentally destroyed 30 vials of plague bacteria then claimed they had vanished from his laboratory.
Dr. Thomas C. Butler, 61, was ordered held without bond on the charge of giving a false statement to a federal agent. The charge carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Defense attorney Floyd Holder said the tenured professor intends to plead innocent.
"He's looking forward to proving to a jury that he's innocent," he said.
The incident began Tuesday night when the university notified authorities and local hospitals that the plague had been reported missing to campus police. Dozens of federal agents converged on the university's medical complex amid fear of bioterrorism, but Butler was arrested Wednesday.
According to the FBI, Butler confessed to accidentally destroyed the vials and then lying about their disappearance.
"I made a misjudgment by not telling (the supervisor) that the plague bacteria had been accidentally destroyed earlier rather than erroneously first found missing," Butler wrote, according to court documents filed by the FBI.
In the note, Butler said he knew the bacteria had been destroyed and was not a threat to public health, and he didn't realize his story would trigger "such an extensive investigation."
Butler is chief of the infectious diseases division of the department of internal medicine at Tech's medical school. The university said he has been involved in plague research for more than 25 years.
The plague samples were kept in a locked area of Butler's lab. He was the only person with authorized access to the bacteria, which must be registered with the International Biohazards Committee and the government.
The bacteria form of plague being used for research "was not weaponized in any way," said Dr. Richard Homan, the medical school dean.
The university has placed Butler on paid leave, changed the locks on his laboratory, blocked him from computer access and barred him from campus.
Health officials say 10 to 20 people in the United States contract plague each year, usually through infected fleas or rodents. The plague can be treated with antibiotics, but about one in seven U.S. cases is fatal.
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