NewsLocal NewsInvestigations


Amerithrax: Deadly event turned into movie 20 years later

Anthrax-laced letter killed Lantana man, 4 others across US
Anthrax attack at American Media in Boca Raton on Oct. 2001
Posted at 12:47 PM, Oct 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-06 00:16:05-04

Twenty years ago this month, hundreds of employees gathered outside the headquarters of the company that published the National Enquirer and other newspapers.  

The reason seemed inexplicable: a co-worker at Boca Raton's American Media Inc. opened a letter laced with the deadly bacteria anthrax.

Anthrax-laced letters reached the offices of two U.S. senators and four national media outlets, including AMI.  

That's where photo editor Bob Stevens opened the letter. He inhaled anthrax and later died on Oct. 5, 2001.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, and next month a new cable television movie will explore the anthrax attacks.  

Anthrax Widow Maureen Stevens

"This was a bioterrorism attack," said West Palm Beach attorney Richard Schuler, who represented the Stevens' family and sued the U.S. Department of Defense.  

At first, FBI agents investigating the case didn't know who was behind the poisonings. The anthrax was sent just days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.  

"And if you remember, at the time, President [George W.] Bush kind of implied it may have come from Iraq before he started the Iraq War," Schuler said.  

"Mr. Stevens worked at AMI, and happened to just be the person who opened that envelope when it came in," added Schuler's law Partner Jason Weisser.  

Seven years after Stevens' death, the FBI accused Bruce Ivans, a U.S. Army medical researcher in Maryland of mailing anthrax.  

Bruce E. Ivins, biodefense researcher accused in 2001 anthrax attacks
Bruce E. Ivins, a biodefense researcher is seen in 2003, at Fort Detrick, Md. Court documents released Sept. 24, 2008, show suspected anthrax attacker Ivins e-mailed himself saying he knew who the killer was. Ivins said he planned to turn over the information to his attorneys and congratulated himself for piecing together the information that had eluded the government for years.

"He created these attacks as a way to scare the nation, in order for the government to provide more funding for the type of work he was doing. I jokingly say it was for him to get job security," Weisser said.  

Ivans died by suicide before charges could be filed. Schuler obtained records showing Ivans had schizophrenia.  

In the wake of Bob Stevens’ death, the government now examines and looks at the records of lab workers who have access to dangerous materials like anthrax.  

Bob Stevens, 2001 Boca Raton anthrax victim
Bob Stevens, an American Media employee, died from an inhaled form of anthrax, in Boca Raton, Florida, in 2001.

"Had they requested those psychiatric records and obtained them, this never would have happened because he would have been disqualified from being in the position that he was in," Schuler said.

The Stevens family reached a $2.5 million settlement with the federal government in 2012.  

"I wouldn't consider it closure," said Maureen Stevens, Bob's wife. "It's a day to honor my husband."  

Now, 20 years after the anthrax terror, the National Geographic network will air next month a docudrama on the attacks.

Co-executive producer Kelly Souder said the anthrax terror attack is important to remember.  

"People are going to be shocked when they see the pieces of this unbelievable event that put everybody on edge," Souder said.  

Weisser added the late Bob Stevens' legacy was a tightening of rules that make many of us safer.  

"Here we are 20 years later," Weisser said. "And it's never happened again."  

Schuler and Weisser hope the movie will help those too young to remember learn more about the nationwide anthrax attacks and the time terrorism came to Palm Beach County.  

Email the Contact 5 Investigators
Share your news tips and story ideas with WPTV's investigations team.