Sleuth Without a Badge

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Ed lake is not a cop. He has no formal training in forensics or any other aspect of law enforcement. But in the past year he has made it his business to master the intricacies of handwriting analysis, envelope technology and the schedule of U.S. mail pickups in and around Princeton, N.J. He can tell you all about cross-contamination, the common misspellings of penicillin and the "pharmaceutical fold" used by chemists for centuries to dispense medicines — and by person or persons unknown to wrap scrawled terror messages around a few billion spores of surprisingly pure anthrax.

Lake, 65, a retired computer specialist, was planning to spend this year writing his seventh screenplay (sci-fi, time travel), convinced that this one would be good enough to get produced. Instead he has become obsessed with the hunt for the anthrax killer. He works on the case up to eight hours a day, reading everything written about the subject and launching his own unofficial investigations. Several times a day he logs on to the Internet to share his findings with four dozen similarly obsessed citizens — some of them journalists, some of them research scientists, some of them, like Lake, armchair detectives who won't rest until the case is cracked. "I don't like to see things incomplete," says Lake. "I see it as a mystery, and I've got all these facts in front of me. I just need to figure out the missing piece."


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To help organize his thoughts — and assist fellow investigators — Lake has assembled what may be the most comprehensive website on the anthrax case outside the FBI, anthraxinvestigation.com. Though he insists that he's no G-man wannabe, Lake has sent dozens of his hypotheses to the bureau over the past year — and received some appreciative feedback in return. ("Knowledge is power," wrote a New York City agent in an e-mail thanking Lake for alerting him to the website.) Among the theories Lake has shared with the feds is his idea, based on the "sloped letters and little balls at the end of the strokes," that the notes were written by a child — perhaps the perpetrator's son or daughter — copying the words from a computer printout.

Conventional wisdom among anthrax aficionados is that the mailings were the work of an American scientist with bioweapons experience who was frustrated by how little attention the U.S. government was paying to the threat these weapons pose. Lake likes that theory a lot better than the ones that blame al-Qaeda or Saddam Hussein. But he doesn't agree with those who tried to drop a dime on Steven Hatfill. He's the former Army scientist whose house has been repeatedly searched and who was famously described by Attorney General John Ashcroft as a "person of interest" (there are about 25 others, according to the FBI). Lake is convinced that Hatfill must have an unimpeachable alibi or the FBI would have hauled him in months ago.

It may actually be a mistake, Lake thinks, to look for a lone anthrax killer. He speculates that there were two co-conspirators: one who supplied the anthrax and a second who refined the spores and mailed them.

Lake has compiled a profile of the refiner-mailer that is striking in its specificity. It's a man, he writes, probably in his 40s, who lives within commuting distance of New York City; reads the New York Post; subscribes to cable TV; watches Bill O'Reilly on the Fox News Channel; was in the Trenton, N.J., area on Sept. 17 and Oct. 8, 2001; and may have traveled last year to Indianapolis, Ind. (from where a threatening letter to O'Reilly was mailed, its handwriting resembling that on the anthrax-tainted letters). You won't read anything like that on the FBI website. On the other hand, Lake isn't bound by the constraints that keep the FBI from broadcasting even informed speculation; that's part of what makes his work so interesting.

Others have criticized the FBI for foot dragging or worse, but not Lake. It's easy to spin theories, he says. "But the FBI has to make sure it has an airtight case." The bureau, for its part, is less generous, officially saying Lake hasn't added anything to the case that it didn't already know.

Lake remains undaunted. FBI agents come and go. In fact, a key member of the FBI's Washington anthrax team — Arthur Eberhart, special agent in charge — retired last summer. But Lake soldiers on. First thing each morning he's back at his computer scouring the Internet for fresh leads. He vows not to quit until the mystery is solved. And then, maybe, he will get back to his screenplay.