U.S. Department of Justice
United States Attorney
Northern District of Texas
1100 Commerce St., 3rd Fl.
Dallas, Texas 75242-1699
Telephone (214) 659-8600
Fax (214) 767-0978
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DALLAS, TEXAS CONTACT: 214/659-8707
APRIL 10, 2003
TEXAS TECH PROFESSOR CHARGED IN 15-COUNT
Jane J. Boyle, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, announced that Thomas Campbell Butler, M.D., a professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, was indicted today by a federal grand jury sitting in Lubbock. The 15-count indictment stems from a January arrest for falsely reporting to FBI agents that 30 vials of plague bacteria (Yersinia pestis) were missing and presumed stolen from his laboratory at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC). Yersinia pestis is the causative agent of human plague.
The indictment charges Butler with illegal importation, smuggling, exportation, and transportation of hazardous materials based on his conduct in transporting and transferring the plague bacteria, as well as making false statements to federal agents investigating the case, and federal agencies charged with administering laws to ensure the health and safety of the public and the accountability of select agents. Select agents, including Yersinia pestis, require special safeguarding and security measures because of their potential use in domestic or international terrorism or other criminal purpose.
The indictment details that on April 14 and 15, 2002, Butler illegally imported and smuggled Yersinia pestis bacteria into the United States from Tanzania on British Airways and American Airlines, without obtaining an import permit from the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for this etiological agent and infectious substance which is capable of causing human disease, and failed to declare the merchandise on Customs forms as required by law. It is a violation of federal smuggling statutes to facilitate the transportation of smuggled merchandise knowing that the merchandise has been imported into the United States contrary to law.
The indictment further alleges that Butler on three subsequent occasions transported and transferred the smuggled bacteria and in so doing violated federal laws. First on June 23-24, 2002, Butler is alleged to have illegally transported Yersinia pestis bacteria to the CDC at Fort Collins, Colorado, via private vehicle. Secondly, between September 9 and 12, 2002, Butler is alleged to have illegally exported 30 vials of Yersinia pestis via Federal Express to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, utilizing Federal Express without obtaining an export permit from the U.S. Department of Commerce, in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). Thirdly, the indictment alleges that between October 1 and 3, 2002, Butler transported the smuggled Yersinia pestis onboard American Airlines to the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The indictment further alleges that Butler's conduct in offering hazardous material for transportation in commerce by air violated regulations promulgated to protect the public from the risks to life and property inherent in the transportation of hazardous materials. The Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (HAZMAT) requires that any person transporting a hazardous material in air commerce ensure that the hazardous material is properly classified, documented, described, labeled, marked, packaged, and in condition for transportation. The hazardous material must also be accompanied by emergency response information for the protection of first responders. The term "hazardous material" includes infectious substances affecting humans, such as the Yersinia pestis bacteria.
The indictment also charges that Butler made false statements in violation of federal law to FBI agents. Specifically, on January 14, 2003, Butler is alleged to have told FBI special agents that 30 vials of Yersinia pestis plague bacteria which were under his control at the TTUHSC laboratory were missing and presumed stolen, when he knew that he had already destroyed the vials of Yersinia pestis. Additionally, Butler is alleged to have untruthfully asserted to the agents that he was unaware of the federal requirements pertaining to Yersinia pestis. Two additional false statement violations are charged predicated upon Butler's alleged statement to the TTUHSC Responsible Reporting Officer for Select Agents which caused the submission of a false national inventory document to the CDC indicating that the TTUHSC facility did not possess any Yersinia pestis in response to a Congressional mandate of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, and Butler's false statement on the Federal Express International Air Waybill that a package, which in fact contained Yersinia pestis being exported to Tanzania, was "laboratory materials."
Thomas Campbell Butler is also charged with making and subscribing to a false U.S. Income Tax Return, Form 1040, for 2001. The tax fraud count alleges that Butler reported $120,200 in expenses on Line 17 of Schedule C of that form, entitled "Legal and Professional Services," when he knew that the correct amount should have been approximately $7,400. This false statement is alleged to have resulted in an understatement of Butler's 2001Federal tax liability of $39,693.
"An incident that could have sparked widespread panic of a bioterrorism threat in west Texas was stopped clean in its tracks thanks to the quick, coordinated actions of federal, state and local law enforcement. This case is an excellent example of how, in the present climate, authorities at all levels of government are approaching their commitment to protect the public with cool heads and joined hearts," said U.S. Attorney Boyle. Ms. Boyle continued, "As soon as the report of the missing plague vials was relayed to the FBI from the Texas Tech Police Department, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies joined forces to cut to the heart of the matter and within hours, were able to calm the public by declaring that the report of the missing vials was false."
Butler, age 61, faces a statutory maximum of 74 years imprisonment and a $3.6 million fine if convicted on all counts. An indictment is an accusation by a federal grand jury and a defendant is entitled to the presumption of innocence unless proven guilty. Butler will appear before The Honorable Nancy M. Koenig, United States Magistrate Judge, in Lubbock federal court in the near future for his Initial Appearance and Arraignment on the Indictment.
This investigation is an example of the manner in which federal, state and local law enforcement agencies jointly respond to a crisis situation. Numerous investigative and regulatory agencies contributed to the investigation. These include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, North Texas Joint Terrorism Task Force, Texas Tech Police Department, Lubbock Police Department, Texas Department of Public Safety, Lubbock Emergency Operations Center, Lubbock Health Department, Lubbock County Sheriff's Department, United States Department of Commerce Office of Export Enforcement, United States Customs Service, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division, United States Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration, Food and Drug Administration Office of Inspector General, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Dick Baker of the Lubbock Division of the United States Attorney's Office.