Prof in '03 plague scare sets off airport shutdown

By Curt Anderson and Jennifer Kay/The Associated Press

MIAMI — The suspicions airport security officials had when they saw the metal canister grew when they learned about the man who brought it in from the Middle East: a scientist who sparked a bioterrorism scare after he reported missing vials of plague samples seven years ago.

Officials shut down most of Miami International Airport overnight, roused nearby hotel guests from their beds and detained Dr. Thomas Butler until Friday morning, when he was released without charges, a senior law enforcement official said.

Tests on the canister found nothing dangerous, said the senior law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information. Homeland Security spokesman Nicholas Kimball said the item resembled a pipe bomb.

Butler’s former lawyer said the incident appeared to be a “fantastic overreaction.”

Butler, 70, is a world-renowned plague researcher who quickly became the focus of a federal investigation in 2003 when he reported that 30 vials of plague samples possibly had been stolen from his Texas Tech University lab.

He was later acquitted of smuggling and illegally transporting the potentially deadly germ, and of lying to federal agents about the missing vials. Jurors found Butler guilty of the mislabeling and unauthorized export of a FedEx package that contained plague samples he sent to Tanzania.

He was also convicted of fraud and theft and sentenced to two years in prison for defrauding Texas Tech about illegally negotiated contracts he had with pharmaceutical companies with which he also had clinical studies contracts.

Before Butler’s trial, leading scientific organizations expressed concern about the criminal case against him and its effect on infectious disease research. Four Nobel laureates said in an open letter that Butler had been “subjected to unfair and disproportionate treatment.”

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who represented Butler in his unsuccessful appeals, said the scientist “has spent his entire life protecting and healing people in some of the most impoverished areas of the world. He would never do anything that would endanger people.”

The senior law enforcement official told the AP that a Transportation Security Administration inspector noticed an odd container around 9 p.m. Thursday as Butler was going through customs. He had arrived on a flight from the Middle East, where he had been teaching at a Saudi Arabian university.

The inspector ran Butler’s name through a database and discovered that he had been tried on the plague-related charges. Officials decided to evacuate the airport and detain Butler, who cooperated fully, the law enforcement official said.

A Miami-Dade police bomb squad spent hours scouring the airport. Between 100 and 200 passengers were evacuated from four of the airport’s six concourses. Airport roadways and a hotel near the airport’s international terminal were closed down. Police and airport officials described the shutdown of the concourses as a public safety precaution.

Butler was released after tests showed that he, the container and his other belongings did not contain any hazardous biological material or explosives, the official said.

The canister was used to transport dead bacteria samples and was a legitimate experiment, said another government official who also requested anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation. Without naming Butler, the official said the scientist is a professor at Ross University, a medical school in the Caribbean island of Dominica, and on a teaching assignment in Saudi Arabia.

Passengers, workers and others were allowed back in just as the airport was expecting the first of 1,500 passengers on flights between 4 and 6 a.m. alone — and more thereafter.

“Everything’s back to normal,” airport spokesman Greg Chin told the AP.

Butler’s 2003 report of missing plague vials set off a frantic search that ended when Butler gave FBI agents a written statement in which he admitted a “misjudgment” in not telling his supervisor that the vials had been “accidentally destroyed,” according to court records. At trial, Butler testified that FBI agents forced him to make the admission to calm the public’s fears.

Turley said he hoped to speak later Friday with the researcher. He said the Miami incident “appears to be a fantastic overreaction,” and is “ironic because we defeated all the national security counts in the case.”

“The only plague claim he was convicted of was a highly technical paper violation; he literally checked the wrong box on the form,” Turley said. He added, “I find it strange to evacuate an airport because a guy was convicted of contractual violations with a university.”

Peter Agre, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who supported Butler against the 2003 charges, said he’d be astonished if Butler did anything wrong.

“I suspect because he’s Tom Butler and on a list as coming from Saudi Arabia, he’s being scutinized and somebody pushed the panic button,” Agre said in a telephone interview from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

In Lubbock, Texas, no one answered the door at an address that a U.S. Department of Commerce website says is Butler’s.

Butler was on supervised release from prison until 2008. He also agreed to retire from Texas Tech and to surrender his medical license.

He is not currently licensed in Texas, a spokeswoman for the Texas Medical Board said Friday.

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Associated Press photographer Alan Diaz in Miami, researcher Barbara Sambriski in New York, and writers Eileen Sullivan in Washington; Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas; David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Md.; and Bill Cormier in Atlanta contributed to this report.