2nd Man Exposed to Anthrax

Times Staff Writer

A second Florida man has been exposed to the rare and extremely deadly anthrax bacterium, and U.S. officials said Monday that they were vigorously investigating the incident as a potential criminal act.

One law enforcement source said they are considering the possibility of terrorism.

The man, mail room employee Ernesto Blanco, was a co-worker of Bob Stevens, photo editor at the Sun tabloid newspaper, who died Friday of the first case of inhaled anthrax seen in the United States in a quarter-century.

Over the weekend, authorities also found traces of anthrax bacteria on the keyboard of Stevens’ computer at work.

In Virginia, state and local officials said late Monday night that they were monitoring a possible case of anthrax in a northern Virginia man whose job may have brought him into contact with the company where the two Florida men worked.

The Virginia man entered the emergency room of Prince William Hospital in Manassas on Monday, complaining of flu-like symptoms, it was reported in today’s Washington Post. Medical personnel quickly performed tests to determine whether he had anthrax, meningitis or another disease.

Officials of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitored the preliminary investigation. A germ culture from the man was transported Monday night by a state police trooper to a state government laboratory in Richmond, officials said.

Earlier Monday, the Florida newspaper’s office building in this upscale Palm Beach County community was quarantined, the company’s 300-member staff was undergoing testing at a nearby health clinic and more than 50 investigators from federal and state agencies were working on the case.

“We regard this as an investigation which could become a clear criminal investigation. And we are pursuing this with all the dispatch and care that’s appropriate,” Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said in Washington.

At this point, Ashcroft emphasized, “we don’t have enough information to know whether this could be related to terrorism or not.”

There were indications that the probe was also taking into account the often lurid nature of the Sun’s news coverage, and the possibility that the weekly might have provoked a reader or a former employee.

A law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Ashcroft became particularly concerned after learning that Stevens and Blanco worked 17 miles from an airport in Lantana where Mohamed Atta, the apparent ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackings, rented a small plane for three days in mid-August. Moreover, Stevens, 63, was a resident of Lantana.

Asked Monday whether Atta was considered a suspect in the mysterious occurrences of anthrax, Ashcroft said: “We haven’t ruled out anything at this time.”

Frank Pinela, spokesman for Florida’s Department of Health, said that anthrax spores had been detected in Blanco’s nasal cavities but that he did not contract the disease. The germs turned up on cotton test swabs Sunday after Blanco, who is in his 70s, was admitted to a hospital with pneumonia.

Health officials said Blanco was in stable condition and being treated with antibiotics Monday at a hospital in the Miami area. He was expected to survive, FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said.

“We don’t know the cause. We’re investigating at this time,” Pinela said. “We’re leaving no stone unturned.”

The offices of American Media, which publishes the Sun, were closed at the request of authorities Sunday night. The next day, the three-story building was cordoned off as FBI agents and public health officials scoured the premises.

Florida Health Secretary John Agwunobi urged employees, and anyone who had spent an hour or more inside the building since Aug. 1, to go to his department’s annex in Delray Beach for testing and a preventive dose of antibiotics.

Nervous employees waited outside the clinic Monday to have swabs inserted in their noses and the bits of cotton sent to Miami for testing.

“Shock, disbelief,” is how reporter J.D. Robinson summed up his feelings. “I had a phone call last night about the building and the second suspected case. I haven’t been able to think straight since then.”

“They tell you not to worry,” said Bonnie Schultz, another employee. “As of Friday, it was: It can’t be spread person to person. Now today, somebody else has it.”

American Media, the nation’s top publisher of supermarket tabloids, also owns the National Enquirer, the Star and the Weekly World News. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, its publications have run virulently critical articles about suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and his Afghan allies, the Taliban.

“We haven’t done anything more than the New York Post or the Daily News or any of the other mainstream media,” said company Chief Executive David Pecker.

However, some of American Media’s neighbors in Boca Raton were skeptical. Peter Amodeo, who works in a property management firm across the street, told reporters: “That building makes enemies because of things they put in the paper. They have bomb scares all the time. They’re always standing in our parking lot because the building is being searched.”

Dr. Dennis Maki, head of infectious diseases at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, speculated that the presence of anthrax in the Sun’s offices might be a case of “amateur bioterrorism” by someone angry at the tabloid.

Bennet Bolton, a senior reporter for the Sun’s sister paper, the National Enquirer, told Associated Press that the staff had received a strange e-mail in late August or early September from a former summer intern.

“It intrigued us that he left such a cryptic farewell,” Bolton told AP. “It was rather neutral and then he said, ‘I left you a surprise for you to remember me by. Ha ha, just kidding.’ ” Bolton said federal investigators had been informed.

On its Web site, Newsweek magazine reported Monday that the Sun received a “weird love letter to Jennifer Lopez” a week before the Sept. 11 attacks. Inside was what was described as a “soapy, powdery substance” and a Star of David charm. The letter was handled by Blanco and Stevens, according to unidentified co-workers cited by Newsweek. After anthrax was detected in Stevens last week, law enforcement officials dismissed speculation about the possibility that it might be bioterrorism.

“But there’s more concern now since we have this second case,” acknowledged an FBI official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Theoretically, anthrax bacteria could be carried on articles such as mailed packages or clothing and settle on surfaces of other objects, such as a computer, said Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control.

However, it would be unusual for someone to contract inhalation anthrax via a computer keyboard. In that case, the bacterium would have settled on the keyboard and “this man died of inhalation anthrax,” said Ellen Gursky, a senior fellow at the Center for Civilian Biodefense at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

In the opinion of one expert on biological weapons, the notion that terrorists might have spread the germs from airplanes is farfetched.

The fact that anthrax spores could be recovered inside the Sun’s offices “implies that the point of release was in or very near the building, and not from any distance away,” said Richard Spertzel, the former head of the team of United Nations biological inspectors that sought to cleanse Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction after the Gulf War.

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Dahlburg reported from Boca Raton, Eric Lichtblau from Washington, John Goldman from New York. Times staff writers Marlise Cimons in Washington and Miami researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this report.