FBI hunts escaped convict over hoax anthrax letters

Rupert Cornwell
Saturday 01 December 2001 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

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The FBI launched a hunt yesterday for an escaped convict they say has posted hundreds of hoax anthrax letters to abortion clinics since the 11 September attacks.

The bureau named fugitive Clayton Lee Waagner, who has been on its 10 Most Wanted List for the past two months, after matching his fingerprints with those taken from one of about 550 letters sent to abortion clinics along the east coast in October and November.

The letters were laced with white powder, later found to be harmless, accompanied by a crude message: "We are going to kill you. This is your notice. Stop now or die." Waagner, an avowed opponent of abortion who has been convicted of bank robbery, carjacking and firearms offences, escaped from an Illinois prison in February.

The Attorney General, John Ashcroft, who opposes abortion, described the hoaxes as a "serious violation" of federal law.

The letters have no connection with the genuine anthrax letters received in October by two Senators and by several media organisations. However, they have heightened the national anxiety over the disease, which has claimed five lives in the US, and infected more than a dozen other people.

After the letter sent to Tom Daschle, the Senate Majority leader, which is believed to have killed two Washington postal workers, the authorities intercepted a second letter covered with anthrax spores addressed to the Democratic Senator, Patrick Leahy.

The letter was due to be opened by a robot at a germ warfare research laboratory in Maryland yesterday. Police say it offers the best chance of tracing the sender of the letters. Investigators believe a domestic hate group or disaffected US scientist may be responsible.

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