- It's a tale only the best conspiracy theorist could dream
- Eleven microbiologists mysteriously dead over the span
of just five months. Some of them world leaders in developing weapons-grade
biological plagues. Others the best in figuring out how to stop millions
from dying because of biological weapons. Still others, experts in the
theory of bioterrorism.
- Throw in a few Russian defectors, a few nervy U.S. biotech
companies, a deranged assassin or two, a bit of Elvis, a couple of Satanists,
a subtle hint of espionage, a big whack of imagination, and the plot is
complete, if a bit reminiscent of James Bond.
- The first three died in the space of just over a week
in November. Benito Que, 52, was an expert in infectious diseases and cellular
biology at the Miami Medical School. Police originally suspected that he
had been beaten on Nov. 12 in a carjacking in the medical school's parking
lot. Strangely enough, though, his body showed no signs of a beating. Doctors
then began to suspect a stroke.
- Just four days after Dr. Que fell unconscious came the
mysterious disappearance of Don Wiley, 57, one of the foremost microbiologists
in the United States. Dr. Wiley, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
at Harvard University, was an expert on how the immune system responds
to viral attacks such as the classic doomsday plagues of HIV, ebola and
- He had just bought tickets to take his son to Graceland
the following day. Police found his rental car on a bridge outside Memphis,
Tenn. His body was later found in the Mississippi River. Forensic experts
said he may have had a dizzy spell and have fallen off the bridge.
- Just five days after that, the world-class microbiologist
and high-profile Russian defector Valdimir Pasechnik, 64, fell dead. The
pathologist who did the autopsy, and who also happened to be associated
with Britain's spy agency, concluded he died of a stroke.
- Dr. Pasechnik, who defected to the United Kingdom in
1989, played a huge role in Russian biowarfare and helped to figure out
how to modify cruise missiles to deliver the agents of mass biological
- The next two deaths came four days apart in December.
Robert Schwartz, 57, was stabbed and slashed with what police believe was
a sword in his farmhouse in Leesberg, Va. His daughter, who identifies
herself as a pagan high priestess, and several of her fellow pagans have
- Dr. Schwartz was an expert in DNA sequencing and pathogenic
micro-organisms, who worked at the Center for Innovative Technology in
- Four days later, Nguyen Van Set, 44, died at work in
Geelong, Australia, in a laboratory accident. He entered an airlocked storage
lab and died from exposure to nitrogen. Other scientists at the animal
diseases facility of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research
Organization had just come to fame for discovering a virulent strain of
mousepox, which could be modified to affect smallpox.
- Then in February, the Russian microbiologist Victor Korshunov,
56, an expert in intestinal bacteria of children around the world, was
bashed over the head near his home in Moscow. Five days later the British
microbiologist Ian Langford, 40, was found dead in his home near Norwich,
England, naked from the waist down and wedged under a chair. He was an
expert in environmental risks and disease.
- Two weeks later, two prominent microbiologists died in
San Francisco. Tanya Holzmayer, 46, a Russian who moved to the U.S. in
1989, focused on the part of the human molecular structure that could be
affected best by medicine.
- She was killed by fellow microbiologist Guyang (Matthew)
Huang, 38, who shot her seven times when she opened the door to a pizza
delivery. Then he shot himself.
- The final two deaths came one day after the other in
March. David Wynn-Williams, 55, a respected astrobiologist with the British
Antarctic Survey, who studied the habits of microbes that might survive
in outer space, died in a freak road accident near his home in Cambridge,
England. He was hit by a car while he was jogging.
- The following day, Steven Mostow, 63, known as Dr. Flu
for his expertise in treating influenza, and a noted expert in bioterrorism,
died when the airplane he was piloting crashed near Denver.
- So what does any of it mean?
- "Statistically, what are the chances?" wondered
a prominent North American microbiologist reached last night at an international
meeting of infectious-disease specialists in Chicago.
- Janet Shoemaker, director of public and scientific affairs
of the American Society for Microbiology in Washington, D.C., pointed out
yesterday that there are about 20,000 academic researchers in microbiology
in the U.S. Still, not all of these are of the elevated calibre of those
- She had a chilling, final thought. When microbiologists
die in a lab, there's a way of taking note of the deaths and adding them
up. When they die in freakish accidents outside the lab, nobody keeps track.
- Suspicious deaths
- The sudden and suspicious deaths of 11 of the world's
- Who they were:
- 1. Nov. 12, 2001:
- Benito Que was said to have been beaten in a Miami parking
lot and died later.
- 2. Nov. 16, 2001:
- Don C. Wiley went missing. Was found Dec. 20. Investigators
said he got dizzy on a Memphis bridge and fell to his death in a river.
- 3. Nov. 21, 2001:
- Vladimir Pasechnik, former high-level Russian microbiologist
who defected in 1989 to the U.K. apparently died from a stroke.
- 4. Dec. 10, 2001:
- Robert M. Schwartz was stabbed to death in Leesberg,
Va. Three Satanists have been arrested.
- 5. Dec. 14, 2001:
- Nguyen Van Set died in an airlock filled with nitrogen
in his lab in Geelong, Australia.
- 6. Feb. 9, 2002:
- Victor Korshunov had his head bashed in near his home
- 7. Feb. 14, 2002:
- Ian Langford was found partially naked and wedged under
a chair in Norwich, England.
- 8. 9. Feb. 28, 2002:
- San Francisco resident Tanya Holzmayer was killed by
a microbiologist colleague, Guyang Huang, who shot her as she took delivery
of a pizza and then apparently shot himself.
- 10. March 24, 2002:
- David Wynn-Williams died in a road accident near his
home in Cambridge, England.
- 11. March 25, 2002:
- Steven Mostow of the Colorado Health Sciences Centre,
killed in a plane he was flying near Denver.