From the final months of 2001 to mid-2005, near-countless people employed in the elite field of microbiology – which is defined as the study of organisms that are too small to be seen with the naked eye, such as bacteria and viruses – died under circumstances that some within the media and government came to view as highly suspicious and deeply disturbing in nature. Many of the deaths appeared, at first glance at least, to have down to earth explanations. But, even those that were skeptical of the notion that the deaths were suspicious in nature could not deny one overriding and important factor: many of those dead microbiologists had secret links to worldwide intelligence services, including the United States’ CIA, Britain’s MI5 and MI6; and Israel’s Mossad.
Inevitably, this mysterious collection of deaths, in such a tightly knit area of cutting-edge research, has led to a proliferation of theories in an attempt to resolve the matter. Some believe that a cell of deep-cover terrorists, from the Middle East, wiped out the leading names within the field of microbiology as part of a plot to prevent Western nations from developing the ultimate bio-weapon. A darker theory suggests that this same weapon has already been developed, and, with their work complete, the microbiologists were systematically killed, one by one, by Western Intelligence, in an effort to prevent them from being kidnapped by terrorists who may then have forced them to work for the other side.
The controversy largely began on November 12, 2001, when Dr. Benito Que, a cell biologist working on infectious diseases, including HIV, was found dead outside of his laboratory at the Miami Medical School, Florida. The Miami Herald stated that his death occurred as he headed for his car, a white Ford Explorer, parked on Northwest 10th Avenue. Police said that he was possibly the victim of a mugger. According to later developments uncovered by the media, however, the new word on the street was that Dr. Que had been attacked by four men equipped with baseball-bats. This was later recanted, however, and it was stated by officialdom that Que had died of nothing stranger than cardiac arrest. And with that final statement in the public domain, police refused to comment any further on Que’s death, rather intriguingly.
Eleven days later, Dr. Vladimir Pasechnik, a former microbiologist for Bioreparat, a bio-weapons production facility that existed in Russia prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, was found dead near his home in the county of Wiltshire, England. His defection to Britain, in 1989, revealed to the West for the very first time the incredible scale of the Soviet Union’s clandestine biological warfare program. And his revelations about the scale of the Soviet Union’s production of biological-agents including anthrax, plague, tularemia, and smallpox provided an inside account of one of the best-kept secrets of the Cold War. According to British Intelligence, Pasechnik passed away from effects of a massive stroke and nothing more. Then, on November 24, 2001, the FBI announced that it was monitoring an investigation into the disappearance of a Harvard biologist because of “his research into potentially lethal viruses,” including Ebola. Dr. Don C. Wiley, 57, had last been seen in Memphis, Tennessee, where he attended the annual meeting of the Scientific Advisory Board of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. His rented car was found at 4.00 a.m. on November 16 on a bridge over the Mississippi River, with a full fuel tank, and the key still in the ignition.
Wiley had left the Peabody Hotel just four hours previously. He was due to meet his wife and two children later that same day in Cambridge, Massachusetts. FBI agents took an interest in Wiley’s disappearance because of his expertise and as a direct result of “our state of affairs post-September 11,” said Memphis-based FBI agent William Woerne. Wiley was a Harvard biochemistry and biophysics professor, and was considered a national expert on Ebola, HIV, herpes and influenza. In 1999, Wiley and another Harvard professor, Dr. Jack Strominger, won the Japan Prize for their discoveries of how the immune system protects humans from infection.
Notably, on the same day that authorities were diligently searching for Wiley, three more microbiologists were killed when a Swissair flight from Berlin to Zurich crashed during its landing approach. Altogether, twenty-two people died and nine survived. Among the dead were Dr. Yaakov Matzner, 54, Dean of the Hebrew University School of Medicine; Amiramp Eldor, 59, who ran the Hematology Department at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and a man who was a world-recognized expert in blood clotting; and Avishai Berkman, 50, director of the Tel Aviv Public Health Department. And the bodies continued to pile up.
On December 12, 2001, it was revealed in the media that a leading researcher on DNA sequencing analysis had been found dead in the secluded northern Virginian farmhouse where he lived alone. The body of Robert M. Schwartz was discovered by neighbors, two days earlier, after co-workers at his place of employment reported he had seemingly skipped work and had missed a meeting.
“We’re all stunned,” said Anne Armstrong, president of the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology, a non-profit agency where Schwartz worked. “We don’t know anything. What we’re assuming is maybe he walked in on something.” Schwartz was a founding member of the Virginia Biotechnology Association, worked at the center for almost fifteen years, and served as the executive director of research and development and university relations. He also worked on the first national online database of DNA sequence information.
On the other side of the world, forty-eight-hours later, equally disturbing events were occurring. Set Van Nguyen was a microbiologist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s Animal Diseases Establishment at Geelong, Australia. He had been employed there for fifteen years when his end came far too suspiciously soon. Police at Victoria, Australia stated: “Set Van Nguyen, 44, appeared to have died after entering an airlock into a storage laboratory filled with nitrogen. His body was found when his wife became worried after he failed to return from work. He was killed after entering a low temperature storage area where biological samples were kept. He did not know the room was full of deadly gas which had leaked from a liquid nitrogen cooling system. Unable to breathe, Mr. Nguyen collapsed and died.”
On December 15, 2001, a formal announcement was made that three people had been charged with murder in the case of the scientist Robert M. Schwartz. Police revealed that he had been killed with a 2-foot sword in a “planned assassination” and that an “X” had been carved into his back. “I have no idea what this means,” said the prosecutor, Robert Anderson. Police in Maryland arrested Kyle Hulbert, 18, Michael Pfohl, 21, and Katherine Inglis, 19. The next day, an intriguing revelation surfaced to the effect that Inglis, in January 2001, had reported to the Naval Recruit Training Command Center in Great Lakes, Illinois. Navy officials stated that she had been trained to work “in aviation” but had suddenly, and inexplicably, left on May 28. One of the other suspects, Michael Pfohl, had, very shortly before Schwartz’s death, expressed an interest in joining nothing less than the elite, deadly, and covert world of Special Forces.
Four days on, police announced they had located the remains of missing Harvard University scientist, Don C. Wiley. A body carrying identification was found on December 18 near a hydroelectric plant in the Mississippi River, and about 300 miles from where Wiley was last seen. Police Lt. Joe Scott said that a positive identification was planned when the body was returned to Memphis for an autopsy.
A number of scientific organizations, including St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital where Wiley worked, put up rewards totaling $26,000 for information leading to the arrest and charge of anyone responsible for Wiley’s disappearance. “As soon as the body gets in our morgue, the medical examiner will begin the autopsy to help answer a lot of questions,” said Memphis Police Director Walter Crews. Interestingly, Reuters news service stated that Wiley’s death had “triggered alarm bells,” due to the “current bio-warfare fears” and the nature of his work, but did not elaborate as to who, exactly, the alarm bells had been triggered with. The FBI stated that it was leaving the investigation of Wiley’s death in the hands of the police. Friends and family of Wiley, meanwhile, stated vocally and publicly that he would not commit suicide under any circumstances.
And still controversial deaths continued to occur, this time in Russia. On January 28, 2002, a microbiologist, and a member of the Russian Academy of Science, Alexi Brushlinski, died as the result of what was blamed on a “bandit attack” in Moscow. Then, two weeks later, Victor Korshunov, 56, also a noted microbiologist, was hit over the head and killed at the entrance of his home in Moscow, Russia. He just happened to be the head of the microbiology sub-faculty at the Russian State Medical University.
On March 24, 2002, Denver car dealer Kent Rickenbaugh, his wife, Caroline, and their son Bart were killed in a plane crash near Centennial Airport. The pilot, Dr. Steven Mostow, was also killed. It transpires that Mostow, 63, was one of the United States’ leading infectious disease experts and the associate dean at the University of Colorado’s Health Sciences Center. Mostow was a crusader for better health, an early advocate for widespread flu vaccinations, and more recently had been deep in talks with U.S. Intelligence officials on the threat of bio-terrorism. And on the same day that Dr. Mostow was killed, another life ended – in England again – when 55-year-old microbiologist David Wynn-Williams was hit by a car while jogging near his home in Cambridge. He was an astrobiologist with the Antarctic Astrobiology Project and the NASA Ames Research Center, and was studying how microbes, of a potentially hostile nature, adapt to living in extreme environments.
On July 18, 2003, it was reported in the British press that David Kelly, a British biological weapons expert, had slashed his own wrists while walking in woods near his home. Kelly was the British Ministry of Defense’s chief scientific officer, the senior adviser to the Proliferation and Arms Control Secretariat, and to the Foreign Office’s Non-Proliferation Department. The senior adviser on biological weapons to the UN biological weapons inspections teams (Unscom) from 1994 to 1999, Kelly was also, in the opinion of his peers, pre-eminent in his field, not only in the UK, but in the world, too. Almost four months later to the day, scientist Robert Leslie Burghoff, 45, was killed by a hit-and-run driver that jumped the sidewalk and ploughed into him in the 1600 block of South Braeswood, Texas. At the time, he was studying outbreaks of viruses on board cruise ships and their potential links to terrorist activity.
Moving into 2004, during the first week of May a Russian scientist at a former Soviet biological weapons laboratory in Siberia died after an alleged accident with a needle laced with Ebola. Officials said the incident raised concerns about safety and secrecy at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, known as Vector, which in Soviet times specialized in turning deadly viruses into biological weapons.
Two month later, specifically on July 3, 2004, Dr. Paul Norman, 52, of Salisbury, Wiltshire, England, was killed when the single-engine Cessna 206 aircraft he was piloting crashed in the county of Devon. He was married with a 14-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter. But that’s not all: Norman was the chief scientist for chemical and biological defense at the British Ministry of Defense’s laboratory at Porton Down, Wiltshire. The crash site was sealed off, and examined by officials from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, and the wreckage of the aircraft was removed from the site to the AAIB base at Farnborough, England. The tragedy was firmly ruled accidental and nothing else.
Incredibly, that’s only the start of it all…