Dozens of federal agents investigating the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks have searched two upstate New York homes of a physician entrepreneur and former hospital emergency services medical director.
The Wellsville, N.Y., homes searched Thursday belong to Kenneth Berry, M.D., a bioterrorism expert who founded an organization that trains medical professionals to respond to chemical and biological attacks.
As more than three dozen agents, some in protective suits, combed through the homes in New York, a similar search occurred at a house in New Jersey. Berry was later arrested in an altercation with family members at a motel in New Jersey, police said.
Authorities provided few specifics about the investigation, other than to say that FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service agents were searching multiple locations in Wellsville and Dover Township, in central New Jersey, as part of the anthrax probe.
The searches raised the prospect that authorities may be closer to a break in a case that has baffled investigators nearly three years. Five people were killed and 17 sickened in the anthrax attacks, further rattling a nation already on edge after Sept. 11.
Property records list the New York homes as the addresses of Berry, 48, who once advocated the distribution of anthrax vaccine in major cities. It was not immediately known why the agents searched the homes.
Hours after the search, Berry was arrested and charged with four counts of assault following an altercation that police described as a domestic dispute at a motel in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. He posted $10,000 bail and was later released from the Ocean County Jail.
An off-duty officer and a motel employee detained Berry after he allegedly assaulted four family members, police said. His relationship to the four was not immediately known.
Attempts to reach Berry by telephone and e-mail were unsuccessful Thursday.
In New Jersey, agents searched a lagoon-front bungalow and hauled out garbage bags that a neighbor said appeared to be filled with bulky contents. Authorities also removed boxes with clear plastic bags in them. Two flatbed trucks hauled two vehicles from the property, said neighbor Adam Fadel.
FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman declined to confirm who lived at the New Jersey home, located on the Jersey shore about 40 miles north of Atlantic City. A telephone listing for the address was under the name of W. Berry. The phone rang unanswered Thursday afternoon.
Weierman said no one had been charged or taken into custody as of Thursday evening.
She said authorities have conducted 5,200 interviews in connection with the attacks, in which anthrax-laced envelopes were mailed to news media and government offices including those of Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
Weierman said 30 FBI agents and 13 postal inspectors are currently devoted solely to the investigation.
Berry founded PREEMPT Medical Counter-Terrorism in 1997. PREEMPT stands for Planned Response Exercises and Emergency Medical Preparedness Training.
In a 1997 USA Today interview, Berry said: "We ought to be planning to make anthrax vaccine widely available to the population starting in the major cities." The remarks were made soon after the Pentagon announced it would begin inoculating all 2.4 million military personnel against anthrax.
Berry is also rated as a commercial pilot, according to biographical information on the PREEMPT Web page, and has been an aviation medical examiner with the Federal Aviation Administration.
"I just can't believe he'd be involved in anything like (anthrax) but who knows? Life's kind of funny," said William DiBerardino, a retired administrator at Jones Memorial Hospital in Wellsville, where Berry was medical director of emergency services until 2001.
"He's an emergency room doctor. He's not a chemist or anything like that," DiBerardino said. Berry is a graduate of the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine in Plymouth, Montserrat, according to his listing on the American Medical Association's Web site. He is listed there as a family practitioner who served residencies in family medicine at St. Joseph's Medical Center and general surgery at Wilson Memorial Regional Medical Center.
Berry pleaded guilty in 1999 to disorderly conduct to settle charges of forgery.
State police said Berry's signature was on a fake will of the late Andrew Colletta, according to The Wellsville Daily Reporter. While initially charged with two counts of second-degree forgery, the plea to a lesser violation allowed him to keep his medical license.
"From what I know, he's a fine, conscientious physician who always had the interest of his patients at heart," said Joseph Pelych, the lawyer who represented Berry in that case. "I find it hard to believe he would be involved in" anthrax.
Pelych added that he hasn't heard from Berry "in some time."
A biography of Berry on the PREEMPT web site says he was an advisor to the Defense Department on weapons of mass destruction and had met with various U.S. officials, including several U.S. Senators and a former director of the Central Intelligency Agency, to discuss bioterrorism defense. To see the PREEMP site click here.