Fugitive on FBI Wanted List Suspected in Hoax Letters
A fugitive who is already on the FBI’s most-wanted list is believed responsible for hundreds of anthrax hoax letters sent since Sept. 11 to abortion clinics, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said Thursday.
The announcement that Clayton Lee Waagner is the chief suspect was a break in the case, which has affected abortion providers across the country.
“The Department of Justice considers Waagner’s threats and all anthrax hoaxes to be serious violations of federal law,” Ashcroft said. “Perpetrators of anthrax hoaxes and those who threaten abortion providers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
However, investigators seem no closer to tracking down the sender of deadly anthrax spores through the postal system. Since the bioterrorist attack began with letters mailed in September, five people have died of anthrax and at least 13 others have been sickened.
An anthrax-laced letter to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), discovered in quarantined Capitol Hill mail two weeks ago, may be opened as early as today, officials said. Investigators have gone to great lengths to devise a strategy to retain as many spores as possible in the hope that research on them might provide much-needed clues.
The attacks have also bred hundreds of anthrax hoaxes. Letters containing a white powder were opened Wednesday at the Los Angeles consulates of Turkey, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, the FBI said Thursday.
Tests conducted on site were negative, FBI spokesman Matt McLaughlin said. Further tests will be conducted at a laboratory. The consulates were briefly evacuated.
Most notable of all the hoaxes, though, were two rounds of mailings to abortion clinics that contained a powder determined not to contain the deadly bacteria. The letters were signed “Army of God,” the name of an antiabortion extremist group that has claimed responsibility for several clinic bombings and slayings of abortion doctors.
Waagner escaped Feb. 22 from federal custody in Illinois, where he had been convicted on federal weapons and stolen-car charges. He is a self-proclaimed antiabortion extremist who has vowed to kill abortion providers and claims to have a list of several dozen clinic employees he has targeted for murder.
In an interview published this week on an antiabortion Web site, Waagner said he was responsible for more than 400 anthrax threats mailed to clinics.
According to Neal Horsley, an antiabortion activist, Waagner showed up over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend at Horsley’s Georgia home and said he was behind the anthrax hoaxes. Horsley has sparked controversy before for his so-called Nuremberg files, a list of names, addresses and other personal information about abortion providers and supporters.
The first round of threatening letters was mailed through the U.S. postal system in October. The second round was sent overnight on Nov. 8 to targets using the corporate FedEx account numbers of Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation, a fact that Waagner bragged to Horsley showed his “resourcefulness,” according to Horsley’s Web site.
In light of Waagner’s claims, Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt said Ashcroft’s announcement was “hardly news.” Her organization, along with the NAF and the Feminist Majority, have expressed anger and frustration that Waagner--said to be armed, dangerous and trained in survivalist skills--has been on the run for more than eight months.
Feldt said she was glad to hear Ashcroft label Waagner’s alleged actions “domestic terrorism.”
“The question is, what are they going to do now?” she said. “He’s been on the loose for so long and he’s been spotted all over the East Coast. I think the next press conference needs to be to announce his capture.”
Underlying the complaints of abortion rights supporters is their concern that Ashcroft, who is personally opposed to abortion, has not been outspoken enough on threats made against their clinics and organizations.
“We thought it was very important that Ashcroft make a public statement so people understood he was serious,” said Vicki Saporta, NAF’s executive director. ‘This is the single largest anthrax threat attempt and his silence up to this point was deafening.”
Saporta said she believed investigators are vigorously searching for Waagner. Since his escape, Waagner, 45, has allegedly robbed banks in Pennsylvania and carjacked an elderly man in Mississippi after abandoning a car full of weapons, law enforcement equipment and antiabortion literature.
Meanwhile, the inhalation anthrax death of 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren on Nov. 21 in Connecticut remained a mystery, as additional tests at Lundgren’s home, nearby mail facilities and places she frequented for traces of anthrax were negative. Lundgren’s case and the death last month of 61-year-old Kathy Nguyen, a New York hospital stockroom employee, have baffled authorities, who have been unable to connect the cases to any of the known anthrax-tainted letters. Tests on the anthrax that infected both women, however, indicate a link to the other illnesses, officials have said.
In addition to searching for spores in Lundgren’s home, church and other places she visited, federal and state investigators have reviewed the medical records of 37 people with illnesses possibly suggestive of anthrax.
Connecticut health officials said Thursday that no evidence of anthrax was found in 19 of the cases and results were pending for the other 18.
Despite the lack of progress, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is “quite premature to suggest that the trail here is growing cold.”
Officials speculate that Lundgren may have been exposed outdoors and that the spores were dispersed in the air, eliminating any trail of evidence.
Times staff writers John J. Goldman in New York and Miles Corwin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.