When Thomas Butler noticed vials of plague bacteria weremissing from his Texas Tech University lab, he informed theFBI?and was put in jail for doing it. “I’ve sat down withTom’s children,” says his attorney Jonathan Turley. “I’vetried to explain what has happened to their father, but Ican’t. It’s about as rational as getting hit by alocomotive.”
Rose George writes in the Independent that 62-year-oldButler is a world-renowned expert on bubonic plague. InJanuary, 2003, he noticed that 30 vials of plague weremissing. After Butler spent the weekend looking for them, hedid what he was supposed to do and called the universitysecurity officer. When they searched again and didn’t findthem, the FBI was called in. Now his wife and four childrenhave no income, while he sits in a prison in Fort Worth,Texas for two years, despite the fact that the FBI came tothe conclusion that the vials had probably been destroyedaccidentally.
George writes: ?Within 48 hours, 60 agents had descended onLubbock, Texas, a town of just 200,000 inhabitants. This wasthe largest single deployment of FBI personnel sinceSeptember 11. Butler was interrogated for two days straight.Agents searched his house in front of his children. Theyasked his wife whether her husband was in sufficientfinancial distress that he would have sold plague toterrorists. ‘In Lubbock!’ says Turley. ‘You can throw astick at any corner in Mozambique and get plague vials. Youcan get it easily in Russia. What terrorist is going to riska trip to Lubbock?'”
Butler cooperated fully with the FBI investigation and evenwaived his right to an attorney. Now he says, “I was trickedand deceived. I was na?ve to have trusted them and theassurances they gave me.”
The FBI told Butler he should sign a document stating thathe had accidentally destroyed the vials, but when he did so,he was arrested for lying to the FBI. Turley says, “Not foranything to do with the vials?It made no sense?Vials areaccidentally destroyed in labs every day. All he would havehad to do is get more plague.”
He was offered a deal: if he plead guilty, he would get sixmonths in jail. But he wouldn’t plead guilty because he saidwasn’t guilty. So prosecutors threw the book at him with 69charges and the threat of life in prison. Most of thecharges had nothing to do with the missing plague. He wasaccused of fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion. During thecase, he was compared to a cocaine dealer smuggling illegaldrugs into the country. “It’s called count stacking,” saysTurley. “They throw as many counts as they can at the juryand hope they’ll split the difference.”
Several Nobel prize winners have spoken out in support ofButler and have donated to his legal fund, because they?reafraid it could happen to them too. “I think there’ssomething else behind it,” says bioweapons expert EdwardHammond. “Texas Tech gets huge grants from the U.S. army.The manner in which they turned on Butler certainly hadsomething to do with that.”
Turley says, “It was made very clear that if they didn’tcooperate, the grants would evaporate.”
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