Unattended suitcase in the middle of a populated airport terminal
Source: Michael Parzuchowski/Unsplash

The Missing Plague Vials

A Domestic Preparedness article in December 2020, titled The Next Black Swan – Bioterrorism, identified persistent public health and homeland security concerns regarding bioterrorism and biowarfare, along with critical infrastructure. The article was intentionally published one year into the ongoing severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and COVID-19 pandemic to emphasize significantly greater public health vulnerabilities and threats. The impact of SARS-CoV-2, with the inappropriate and inadequate response, was enormous and world-changing. Nevertheless, the article stressed that it may be a forewarning of much worse threats.

That article incorporated a true story of missing bubonic plague vials and other suspicious activities demonstrating biological vulnerabilities and threats. This little-known story generated pertinent questions and discussions for a more in-depth follow-up article. The expanded story merited deeper review and analysis – especially during emerging conflicts, volatile geopolitics, vulnerable economies, and suspicious bio-laboratories operating in the United States. The amazing tale also warranted a broader analysis in an era of growing distrust of questionable scientific experts, governmental statements, and investigations in a post-COVID-19 world.

This story may be helpful for deliberating and planning for possible biological vulnerabilities with severe or catastrophic consequences. The conflicting points of view and lessons learned remain essential today.

Missing Plague Vials

On January 13, 2003, scientist and physician Thomas C. Butler reported 30 vials of Yersinia Pestis, also known as the bubonic plague, missing from his Texas Tech University laboratory. The 30 vials were reportedly part of 180 vials of the Black Death pathogen. Butler – a professor, reported plague research expert, and the chief of the Infectious Diseases Division of the Department of Internal Medicine – believed they may have been stolen from his laboratory. Even with 25 years of plague research experience, Butler reportedly did not believe it necessary to alert authorities. The medical school dean disagreed and said it could not be handled internally. It remained frightening times in 2003, with terrorism and bioterrorism being national priorities after the September 11 (9/11) and anthrax mail attacks in 2001.

Within hours, 60 federal agents arrived in Lubbock, Texas, to begin the investigation. Butler was the only one with authorized access to the missing bacterium. There was an access control system but no cameras in the research laboratory to provide additional information. During the initial investigation and interview, federal agents reportedly promised Butler that they would not arrest him if he admitted to accidentally destroying the vials. The professor admitted it was a misjudgment to report that the vials were stolen and then claimed that he accidentally destroyed them. They immediately arrested Butler after the interview.

The legal process took over. The government requested that Butler be held without bail as a flight risk and danger to the community, but they later released him on a $100,000 bond with an electronic monitor and travel restrictions. The university administrative process engaged by changing laboratory locks and prohibiting him from campus with paid leave.

Butler was indicted in April 2003 for 15 federal counts involving the improper handling, control, and transportation of the plague samples. The well-known authority on infectious diseases was charged with allegedly smuggling plague bacterium into the United States, improperly transporting them within the country, and lying to federal authorities. The charges also included defrauding Texas Tech and filing false tax returns. Via a superseding indictment against him in September 2003, an additional 54 charges included theft, embezzlement, and fraud. His bond later increased to $250,000, with 69 felony charges having a maximum sentence of 469 years in prison.

60 Minutes Interview

In a CBS 60 Minutes interview in October 2003, Butler claimed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) tricked him into saying that he accidentally destroyed the vials. After a nine-hour interview and searching his laboratory and home, there was no evidence of a break-in to support the theft claim. The FBI focused on Butler.

Butler stated in the 60 Minutes episode that if he had destroyed the vials, he would have remembered doing it, but he did not. Butler also claimed that authorities said he would not face charges if he could confirm accidental destruction. If Butler signed a confession, he could go home and close the case. Butler signed the document without an attorney present. According to the professor, the government wanted to close the case and reassure the public that there was a public health danger, so they arrested him for lying to the FBI instead of letting him go home. However, Butler’s statements in the televised interview were concerning, especially for a renowned scientist:

Destruction of bacteria is a routine procedure in laboratories. And for one set of vials to be mixed up and placed inadvertently into the sterilizer is something that might happen… It could be carelessness. It could be hurried activity at the end of a day.

An hour after Butler and his attorney finished his interview with 60 Minutes, the federal judge for his case issued a gag order prohibiting extrajudicial statements by the parties, counsel, or agents. The order prevented any government response to the televised story.

The episode has also presented the prosecution’s side of the story, including the inappropriate handling and transportation of plague vials identified as possible components of weapons of mass destruction. Butler allegedly hand-carried them on a commercial flight from Tanzania despite being well-trained, educated, and aware of the requirements. The deadly biological agent had to be transported in special and properly labeled safety containers since at least 1996.

The episode ended by reporting that Butler had recanted his confession. He was saying that he did not know if someone had destroyed, lost, or stolen the dangerous vials. They were just missing.

The Trial

The federal trial began in November 2003. Butler testified that he accidentally destroyed the vials and made a misjudgment in making the report. Butler stated that an FBI agent coached him on what to include in the written statement – if he did not want to be there for a long time. Butler faced the following consequences:

  • Conviction of 47 of the 69 federal charges related to the pathogen mishandling (44 of the 47 convictions from the superseding indictment);
  • Acquittal on charges of lying to federal authorities, illegally transporting plague samples, and smuggling samples into the United States;
  • Conviction of fraud, theft, and embezzlement related to concealed contracts and interactions with pharmaceutical companies; and
  • A two-year prison sentence, a $15,000 fine, and the surrender of his medical license (he served his sentence at a federal medical center as an orderly).

The location and status of the missing plague vials remained unknown. The scientist may have destroyed the vials, or they could have been misplaced or improperly obtained by someone else. Butler reportedly located employment outside the United States after his release due to legal and licensing issues. However, there were conflicting perspectives on the seriousness and ramifications of his actions.

The Other Side of the Story

Many scientists believed that the charges were excessive, resulting from the post-anthrax hysteria. Butler had used poor judgment and practices at the wrong time in history. There was a fear that the reaction and prosecution would affect other researchers handling dangerous pathogens and agents. The responses ranged from the government trying to make an example of him to the proper response of addressing a serious pathogenic threat to the public. A Nobel prize winner in chemistry even offered to donate some of his winnings for Butler’s defense.

In a 2005 Clinical Infectious Diseases journal paper, over a dozen scientists questioned Butler’s prosecution. The document identified his extensive education, research experience, and writings, especially with Yersinia Pestis. The paper provided an overview of the case with a positive view of Butler. Some organizations believed that the downward departures of numerous counts in the judge’s sentencing demonstrated an overzealous prosecution. The Human Rights Committee of the National Academy of Science, Institute of Medicine, New York Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and other organizations supported Butler and opinions to the court and Justice Department. The scientists, organizations, and some in the media suggested that Butler was a victim of the bioterrorism fear to set an example. The writers encouraged readers to engage with congressional and government officials and donate to his legal appeal.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) created a webpage supporting Butler, an eminent scientist caught in a “Hitchcockian” situation. Last updated in September 2006, the webpage included links to articles, court documents, and other sources of information regarding Butler. FAS pronounced:

Here at FAS we don’t know what Dr. Butler did or why. But we share the concern of other independent observers that the government prosecuted this case in a manner grossly disproportionate to the offenses that were alleged. Dr. Butler is not a terrorist.

The controversy faded until 2010, when another suspicious event questioned Butler’s activities and judgment. He was once again the subject of law enforcement and media attention.

A Bomb Threat at Miami International Airport

As more broadly and procedurally detailed in the 2020 article, Butler entered the United States in 2010 on a late-evening flight from Saudi Arabia via London at the Miami International Airport. After clearing customs border inspection without incident, the scientist went to the Transportation Security Administration screening for a connecting flight to Puerto Rico. During the routine screening, security found a suspicious object in his luggage: a 12-inch metal pipe with threaded metal end caps resembling a common pipe bomb. The only thing missing was an obvious fuse or timer.

The responding federal and local law enforcement evacuated four of the six airport terminals, which was not a simple undertaking. As the bomb squad executed their response plans, local and federal officials interviewed the scientist to discover what was inside the enclosed metal tube. At that point, the scientist was just a traveler with a strange and concerning item in his baggage. Before discovering the worrisome history of the scientist in the early morning hours of the hectic incident and interview, the bomb squad disabled the suspicious device. Shortly after, the bomb squad received information regarding the scientist’s arrest history and previously missing bubonic plague vials, which resulted in an elevated concern about the unknown contents of the metal pipe.

Critical Infrastructure

Compounding the unease, responders unintentionally forcibly opened the object near a sizable heat, air ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) intake zone linked to several large airport terminals. The impact of accidentally releasing a serious biological threat during the response to the device could have been catastrophic. The possible number of exposures was high as passengers in a busy airport prepared to travel around the country and the world. The cost of possibly closing several large and critical terminals for years to remediate a public health threat in the HVAC system and throughout the terminals was astronomical. Such an event could result in immeasurable financial and economic consequences throughout the county, state, region, and country. An adverse outcome could have affected the overall transportation technology sector and possibly other critical infrastructure sectors, including manufacturing and commercial facilities. The airport enormously impacted international and domestic trade, travel, and commerce.

The incident was a reminder of airborne chemical, biological, and radiological threats to building environments, a priority focus after the 2001 anthrax attack. Several organizations issued guidance in 2003 to protect against these possible terrorist attacks. While it is impossible to mitigate all threats, the guidance updated over the years provided valuable information to review for planning and preparedness. Like so many homeland security threats and vulnerabilities, there was no simple answer. However, acknowledgment and understanding are important first steps.

A Broader Story to Reconsider

The substance in the metal pipe at Miami International Airport that eventful night was reportedly not the missing plague or another identified dangerous pathogen. If it were, this story would have been better known. The consequences could have ranged from serious to catastrophic with the extent of exposure to hundreds, if not thousands, of domestic and international travelers. It was a textbook location and method for transmitting a biological or chemical threat (intentional or unintentional) – a reminder of legitimate concerns from the early 2000s that remain today.

This expanded story provides a broader perspective of the lost vials and disturbing actions of the professor and government. The 9/11 and anthrax attacks likely influenced the activities and reactions in 2003. They may have been appropriate or an overreaction. The reactions in 2010 appeared logical within the immediate response with initial and evolving information. Nevertheless, both incidents merit further contemplation in 2024 for planning and preparedness. Homeland security threats and vulnerabilities remain and compound over time.

This more comprehensive story may be helpful when looking over the horizon for intersecting vulnerabilities and threats. Whether helpful, frightening, or overwhelming, the incidents were significant, highlighting homeland security and domestic preparedness concerns and weaknesses. The lessons learned are relevant, especially today, with an expanding distrust of scientific, governmental, and bio-laboratory activities over the years since the incidents. This story could be a warning of worse possibilities from poor or suspicious laboratory practices or a forewarning of directed biological, chemical, or radiological critical infrastructure attacks. There are two sides to this story, both with potentially serious public safety and societal consequences.

no-image
Robert C. Hutchinson

Robert C. Hutchinson, along-time contributor to Domestic Preparedness, is a director at Black Swans Consulting LLC. Before joining the private sector, he was the chief of police for the Broward County Public School, Special Investigative Unit. He retired after over 28 years as a federal agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. His positions included deputy director, assistant director, deputy special agent in charge, assistant special agent in charge, supervisory special agent, and special agent at offices in Florida, Washington DC (HQ), Maryland, and Texas.  He was the deputy director of his agency’s national emergency preparedness division and assistant director for its national firearms and tactical training division. His over 40 publications and many domestic and international presentations address the important need for cooperation, coordination, and collaboration between public health, emergency management, and law enforcement, especially in pandemic preparedness. He received his graduate degrees at the University of Delaware in public administration and Naval Postgraduate School in homeland security studies.

SHARE:

COMMENTS

Translate »