How Texas anthrax acquired an Iowa name

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HEBBRONVILLE, Texas — Robert Fulbright surveyed the land his grandfather settled in 1906, thick with mesquite and prickly pear cactus. Not the lushest part of Texas but fine country for raising cattle, he said — if you don't mind the anthrax.

"They fever so bad, they look like they've been dead longer than they've been dead," he said, recalling a 1975 outbreak that claimed at least 100 cattle. He spent much of the summer burning carcasses. "Fire's the only thing I know that'll kill it for sure. It's a nasty son of a gun."

A killer lurks beneath the soil of Jim Hogg County, awaiting the right combination of rain and sun and hungry cattle to come to life.

And this is no ordinary killer. The anthrax that was sent to the Senate and that killed a Florida tabloid editor, two postal workers, an elderly Connecticut woman and a New York hospital worker, was traced in February to this remote corner of South Texas. Specifically, it was traced to a 14-month-old cow that died on a lonely ranch an hour's drive from the Rio Grande.

Veterinarian Michael Vickers took tissue samples from the cow, never imagining the bacteria they contained would end up wreaking havoc 20 years later. He was as shocked as anyone to learn of his connection to the attacks. But having struggled to contain outbreaks that killed 30 cows in a day, it made sense.

"This is a very lethal strain of anthrax that we see down here," he said. "It's very, very severe, and it kills with extreme prejudice."

In 1981, a benchmark case

No one is sure where the Jim Hogg anthrax originated. Perhaps conquistadors brought it to the Americas or it hitched a ride on some Chinese wool 50 years ago.

The FBI, the CIA and others are hunting the person who milled it into a lethal powder and sent it to the Senate, NBC News and other targets.

About all that is certain is that a gruesome death in May 1981, 20 miles south of Hebbronville, in a county where cattle outnumber people 4-to-1, provided the raw material.

"I kind of freaked out when they said they traced it back to Hebbronville. I've been around Dr. Vickers maybe 15 years," said ranch hand Meme Avila, 34.

"That was kind of scary. There are cruel people that want to do bad things out there."

The phones at Vickers' clinic and in his pickup ring continually. Ranchers in 10 counties trust him to keep their herds healthy. He scribbles phone numbers on his palm. "I do an awful lot of autopsies," he said as he drove. "I see anthrax just about every year."

He had been doctoring horses and cows for eight years when the call came. A 700-pound Beefmaster heifer had died mysteriously near a concrete water trap. That's not uncommon with anthrax. In the last hours, victims go wild with thirst and fever. So stricken cattle or deer often die near or in water.

The cow was on the Lytton place, owned by longtime Kenedy County Judge Lee Lytton Jr. and his brother, Arthur, both dead now. They had bought the 26,000-acre spread from heirs of the legendary King Ranch. The Lyttons ran 900 cattle, and this was the third loss in three days.

The cow was found that morning beneath a windmill that pumps water for the cattle. She was unable to rise. By noon she was dead.

Vickers' diagnosis leaned toward black leg, a virus that is somewhat more common than anthrax but with similar symptoms. Bloating. Heavy bleeding internally and through the mouth, nose or rectum. Rapid death.

The cow was "in excellent flesh," Vickers wrote in the report he sent with organ slices to the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostics Laboratory at Texas A&M University.

More than 20 years later, driving the dusty ranch road, Vickers confessed that he didn't remember the exact spot of the postmortem. Anthrax is so unremarkable around Hebbronville that two years after that necropsy, he bought 1,542 acres of the Lytton ranch.

Barney Baldeschwiler is 90 and has worked as a ranch hand for 40 years. He's seen healthy cows fall over dead. He laments the pronghorn antelope that disappeared 25 or 30 years ago. "What killed them off, I think, was anthrax," said Baldeschwiler.

Like most ranch workers, he's never had anthrax. Only the animals catch it. So he frets more about mesquite thorns and rattlesnakes and the summer sun.

The Ames, Iowa, connection

When lab results on the heifer came back from Texas A&M two days later, he ordered the surviving herd inoculated and the water trap fenced off for a few weeks as they built up immunity. He burned the clothes and gloves he wore and sterilized his tools.

"We live with it. There's other things that'll kill you out here first: rattlesnakes, drug smugglers," Vickers said. "Anthrax is way down on the list."

The United States halted its offensive germ-warfare program in 1969, but research on vaccines and treatments continues.

Unknown to Vickers, the Army's biodefense lab in Fort Detrick, Md., had a standing request for anthrax samples from the A&M lab. The lab sent a culture from the Lytton ranch to Army biologist Gregory Knudson, using a prepaid mailing label provided by a national veterinary lab in Ames, Iowa.

Knudson five years later published a vaccine study that referred to the "Ames strain," unusually hardy and deadly and fast-growing. Researchers shared their germ with up to 20 labs in the United States, Canada and Britain.

"I've seen some reports that it only went to five labs," said Dr. Ronald Blanck, former Army surgeon general and now president of the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, "but if it went to five it went to 50."

There's no way to account for all of the strain. Controls have been tightened since Sept. 11, but hundreds of scientists and technicians may have had access to it and the know-how to weaponize it.

When the link was made to the Ames strain, lab officials in Iowa were besieged. They scoured records but found no evidence of a local anthrax outbreak in 1981. Knudson found the mailing label and Vickers' case report a few weeks ago.

A name change to reflect the strain's true origin seems unlikely, which suits the folks in South Texas fine. But Vickers can appreciate the clerical error. Texas anthrax records attribute the Jim Hogg County cases he has reported to Brooks County. That's where he runs his clinic, near Falfurrias.

Because anthrax kills its hosts so quickly, it goes through only a few dozen generations before it returns to spore form, awaiting another victim. So the DNA stays much the same for years.

"A bacterial life is pretty short, and it requires probably a million generations to begin to see any changes at all in the DNA structure," said Dr. Bradley Perkins, chief of the meningitis and special-pathogens branch of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the agency's top anthrax investigator. The slow evolution has proved "highly relevant to the criminal investigation," he said.

Pinpointing the source

Although all Ames-strain anthrax is basically identical, investigators may yet pinpoint the lab where the spores originated.

Microbial geneticist Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University has been working with the FBI. He recently said he had found a way to distinguish between five samples of Ames strain, four from labs and one taken in 1997 from a goat in Terrell County, Texas, 300 miles northwest of Hebbronville.

But anthrax is far more prevalent than the figures indicate. Coyotes, wild pigs and buzzards often erase the evidence — and spread the disease — before anyone notices.

On top of that, ranchers often prefer to burn a diseased carcass rather than order a necropsy. Necropsies cost money, and some worry about having trouble leasing land for grazing or deer hunting.

"They don't want their neighbors and friends and the Texas government to know about it," said Donald Kelso, extension agent in Terrell County. "If they have a problem, they try to take care of it themselves without the outside world knowing about it."

Hebbronville rancher Bill Holbein, 65, figures it's "silly" for anyone to deny the prevalence of anthrax. He grew up on the ranch where Vickers obtained the Ames strain. Holbein's father managed the place for years, and he remembers a big outbreak in the late 1940s or early '50s.

"We lost an awful lot of cattle, probably a couple of hundred cattle over a couple of years, over a hundred one summer," Holbein said.

He runs 400 head of cattle, some on a 12,000-acre parcel next to the Lytton ranch. He vaccinates every year, religiously. "Oh, yeah. It's in the soil," he said. "I was surprised they were able to trace it down here. I wasn't surprised that we had it."