Aug 30

How I connected bull riding to the deadly anthrax case

It seemed like sort of a far-fetched thought, but then again, everything that happened toward the end of 2001 was bizarre and unreal.

So a few weeks after I attended Gary Leffew’s bull-riding camp in Nipomo, an odd,persistent thought came to mind:

Could one of my fellow bull-riding students have been the notorious anthrax mailer?

After covering the Rex Krebs death penalty trial, Trib photographer Joe Johnston had suggested we do a story on Leffew’s camp, a place where future rodeo stars and curious rookies went to learn bull riding. I told Johnston I’d do it if I could actually participate in the class.

After several months covering a story about two gruesome murders, I was happy to write about something a little more uplifting. Also, between the end of the trial that summer and the beginning of camp in November, our country had suffered its worst act of terrorism, which still had everyone feeling a little numb.

After getting the go-ahead from the bosses, I spent a week at Leffew’s camp. And, even though I was the the least cowboy of anyone there, I did manage to ride a bull — a somewhat tamer bull named Warthog — the obligatory eight seconds on my final ride of the camp.

The camp was inspirational, and I was proud to have “rode ‘im.” I was also happy with the story we published in the Tribune, a first-person account with great photos by Joe.

But as the weeks passed, I was reading news about the anthrax letters when I thought about one of the guys in my class.

The anthrax letters, if you remember, were sent the week after the Sept. 11 attacks. Letters containing the deadly strand of bacterium were sent to Democratic senators and major news outlets. Five people actually died as a result of those lethal mailings and several others became ill.

Initially, people assumed the letters was part of the 9/11 terror attacks. But after several months, major news publications were reporting that the FBI suspected it was an American who’d sent them.

Specifically, the FBI had suspected that it was someone, possibly with the Army, who had worked with anthrax. And because the letters had been mailed from different places, I’d read somewhere, the culprit might be someone who traveled a lot.

Which reminded me of this bull rider named Troy Alexander.

Troy was memorable for two reasons: First of all, he was African-American, and there aren’t a lot of African-Americans in rodeo. Secondly, he had a PhD in chemistry — also something you don’t generally associate with bull riding. (He’s the second from the left in the above photo; I’m the one riding the bull.)

He was a pretty interesting character, who had intriguing stories about encountering racism when he traveled to rodeos in the South. (He traveled to rodeos in different regions as well.) And I specifically remembered him saying he worked for the U.S. Army at the Pentagon, trying to find a cure for anthrax.

At the time, it just seemed fascinating. But later, when it was clear that the FBI was looking for someone who had worked with anthrax, I began to wonder if I should contact them about my fellow camp attendee.

I labored over it for a bit. Because, really, Troy was a cool, happy guy, who liked his job and loved riding bulls. He certainly didn’t seem like someone who would send out deadly letters that proclaimed, “Death to America.”

But, then again, I figured the FBI would appreciate any information, right? Heck, odds were they probably already knew about Alexander, since very few people were known to have actually worked with anthrax. And if he worked for the government, they surely would have had a talk.

Still, I thought, maybe I needed to drop a line, just in case. This was just months after 9/11, mind you. Things were crazy. Uncertain.

Yet, for some reason, the prospect of ratting on him — even if I didn’t think he did it — made me feel rotten.

So I did a little research, and I found an FBI poster, featuring the anthrax culprit’s envelopes. And just then I remembered something else:

I had a sample of Troy’s handwriting.

Often, when I’m interviewing a group of people, I’ll pass along my reporter pad and have them write their names, ages, and home towns as neatly as they can. That way I can be assured that I won’t mess up their name spellings. And I remembered that I had done that while writing about Leffew’s camp.

So I dug into my pile of old notebooks, and there it was. My notes from the camp.

I quickly flipped to the page that had the names, and sure enough, there was Troy’s name and home town, printed neatly with a pen. I quickly took it to the computer and compared it to the neat handwriting from those anthrax letters, and it was obvious that the writing did not match.

He wasn’t the anthrax culprit.

As the months and years passed, the FBI named Steven Hatfill — a civilian researcher with the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases — as a prime suspect. But after he didn’t pan out as the culprit — and later sued — around 2005, the feds focused on another employee from the institute, microbiologist Bruce Edwards Ivins.

Ironically, Ivins had initially assisted the FBI in the investigation. But now he was the prime suspect. Though some have doubted his guilt — or at least his ability to act alone — Ivins died of a Tylenol overdose in 2008, just as the feds were getting ready to charge him.

His death is believed to be a suicide, which, the FBI has reasoned, suggests consciousness of guilt.

As we near the 10th anniversary of that dreadful time, it all seems almost like a bad dream. We were blindsighted, leading us to become more distrustful and on the offensive.

But in the midst of all that are the great memories I have of Leffew’s camp and the cameraderie all the guys shared, even if we came from different walks of life.

Alexander, by the way, continues to ride in rodeos and still works as a biologist for the government.

I retired from bull riding — and sleuthing — after 2001.

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