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Bond Denied For Plague Professor

Bond has been denied a university professor at the center of a scare over missing plague bacteria. Dr. Thomas C. Butler told the FBI he lied when he said 30 vials of the deadly bacteria had disappeared because he had accidentally destroyed them, according to court documents.

Butler was arrested Wednesday on a complaint of giving false information to the FBI about the vials. He was scheduled to appear in court Thursday afternoon.

The FBI said in documents filed in support of its criminal complaint that Butler gave agents a handwritten note in which he admitted lying to his supervisor about the vials.

"I made a misjudgment by not telling (the supervisor) that the plague bacteria had been accidentally destroyed earlier rather than erroneously first found missing," Butler wrote, according to the FBI.

In the note, Butler said he knew the bacteria had been destroyed and was not a threat to public health, and he didn't realize his story would trigger "such an extensive investigation."

When news spread about the missing vials, the anxiety was palpable. Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge contacted the mayor, a terrorism alert was triggered and dozens of investigators from the FBI and other agencies converged on Texas Tech University.

According to U.S. Attorney Dick Baker, Butler said Tuesday that vials containing bacteria obtained from tissue samples from East Africa were missing when "truth in fact, as he well knew, he had destroyed them prior to that."

"We have accounted for all those missing vials and we have determined that there is no danger to public safety whatsoever," Lubbock FBI Agent Lupe Gonzalez said Wednesday.

Authorities have declined to elaborate on what happened to the vials or say why or how Butler may have destroyed the bacteria.

Dr. Richard Homan, Texas Tech School of Medicine dean, said the bacteria form of plague being used for research "was not weaponized in any way."

The public did not learn of the report of missing vials until early Wednesday. But hospitals and medical personnel were notified Tuesday, part of the city's post-Sept. 11 emergency plan.

Samples were kept in a locked area of Butler's lab, which is not in a high-traffic area. Butler kept logs on batches of samples, and one batch was reported missing, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

The samples, among the 180 the school was using for research on the treatment of plague, were reported missing to campus police Tuesday night.

Butler was the only person with authorized access to the bacteria, which is classified as a select agent that has to be registered with the International Biohazards Committee and with the federal government.

Butler is chief of the infectious diseases division of the department of internal medicine at Texas Tech's medical school. The university said he has been involved in plague research for more than 25 years and is internationally recognized in the field.

Plague — along with anthrax, smallpox and a few other deadly agents — is on a watch list distributed by the government, which wants to make sure doctors and hospitals recognize a biological attack quickly.

Health officials say 10 to 20 people in the United States contract plague each year, usually through infected fleas or rodents. The plague can be treated with antibiotics, but about one in seven U.S. cases is fatal.

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