Tabloid looks for ending to anthrax story

Sunday, September 1, 2002

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- If the tabloid empire of American Media Inc. wrote the headline for the latest act in its own disaster, it might read: "Space aliens search for hidden killer in eerie ghost town!"

But for this story, the company that publishes The National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids wants the bizarre headlines to go away.

Nearly 11 months after the nation's first anthrax attack killed an AMI photo editor and quarantined the company's headquarters, FBI agents and scientists wearing protective "moon suits" have returned to the contaminated complex.

AMI executives and lawmakers have called for a government takeover of the property, saying the building poses a health risk, particularly if a hurricane or fire ruptured the building and allowed the deadly bacteria to spread.

They also hope the FBI's renewed investigation will bring answers about the death of Robert Stevens.

"It's been a yearlong nightmare for our employees and especially for the Stevens family," said David Pecker, American Media's CEO. "To come through all of this again 10 months later is difficult, but we really want to try to find out what has happened here."

The building has stood empty and under constant guard since Oct. 7, when employees were evacuated and left behind everything -- from fish bowls and half-eaten sandwiches to a library with 500,000 photos and tips on countless celebrities.

"We didn't even have a paperclip," said Pecker, who left his glasses and car keys on his desk.

The place is "eerie, just basically floating in time," said senior vice president Dan Rotstein, the only employee allowed to don a "moon suit" and enter the building since it was sealed.

The investigators re-entered the building on Aug. 25, hoping to use newly developed techniques to find whatever carried the anthrax into the building and onto Stevens' desk. They want to compare the letter or package to those mailed to Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and compare the type of anthrax spores to those found in the congressional building.

"It might be possible to pin down whether this anthrax is the same, if it was developed earlier or later, or if it was from the same batch," said Steven Block, a Stanford University professor and bioterrorism expert.

The FBI won't say if any evidence has been found yet.

Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., wonders if the FBI returned to AMI because it was out of other options.

"It's baffling why the FBI has not been inside the AMI building for the past year," he said. "I'm hopeful it will lead to more clues, but I don't understand why the federal government's law enforcement agencies have been so lax in investigating the AMI incident."

Lawmakers say the government should clean the building, as it did congressional offices and post offices, or take it over to use as a lab to study anthrax.

In the meantime, AMI is using rented offices a mile away, while the company is stuck with its former headquarters, whose value has dropped by millions.

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