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Anthrax victim's family, U.S. reach tentative deal, lawyer says

By Jake Carpenter
updated 8:50 PM EDT, Mon October 31, 2011
Robert Stevens was the first person to die in a wave of anthrax attacks in late 2001.
Robert Stevens was the first person to die in a wave of anthrax attacks in late 2001.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Robert Stevens was the first of five killed in the 2001 anthrax attacks
  • His family sued the government in 2003, accusing it of lax lab security
  • The FBI blamed the attacks on a scientist at an Army facility

(CNN) -- The family of a Florida man who was the first to die in the 2001 anthrax attacks has reached a tentative settlement with the U.S. government over his death, a lawyer for the family said Monday.

The family is waiting for word from the Justice Department before a deal is finalized, said Richard Schuler, the lawyer for the family of anthrax victim Robert Stevens. The family sued the government for $50 million in 2003, arguing that the military laboratory in Maryland that was identified as the source of the bacterium should have had tighter security.

"I think the family was vindicated that the government has agreed to settle the case with them in spite of the fact that they put up a lot of roadblocks," Schuler said. Stevens and his wife, Maureen, were married 27 years, and there is "still a hole in her life as far as her husband is concerned," he said.

Schuler would not comment on any details of the tentative deal.

Stevens, a photo editor for supermarket-tabloid publisher American Media Inc., died five days after testing positive for inhalation anthrax in October 2001. He was the first of five people killed in the anthrax mailings, with 17 other people sickened.

"It's a horrible, painful death, that they had to witness their loved one go through," Schuler said. "It's something that they'll never forget."

Court documents filed last week in U.S. District Court in Palm Beach County, Florida, requested deadlines in the Stevens lawsuit be suspended as the parties tried to finalize a settlement. Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller declined to comment on any deal.

"The documents speak for themselves," Miller told CNN via e-mail. "We would have nothing further at this time."

The FBI eventually blamed the attacks on a civilian scientist at the Army's biological research laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The suspect, microbiologist Bruce Ivins, had a history of mental illness and killed himself in 2008 before investigators brought charges against him, federal prosecutors said.

A February report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that it could not reach a "definitive conclusion" about the source of the anthrax, which federal agents said had been linked to a sample from Ivins' laboratory. But the FBI and the Justice Department stand by their findings, saying that scientific testing gave agents "valuable investigative leads" that led them to Ivins.

A CNN Presents investigation in early October revealed that the federal government has spent $19 billion to fight biological attacks. Multiple new labs have since opened to research potential treatments, and the government now counts nearly 15,000 workers, handling germs like Ebola, plague, and anthrax -- about twice as many as before.

The FBI now checks potential workers for felonies and ties to terror groups. But proposed reforms like psychological screening or requiring two people in labs have gone nowhere, with scientists who have reviewed the issue calling those proposals intrusive, expensive and impractical.

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