by Alanna Mitchell, Simon Cooper and Carolyn Abraham
compiled by Alanna Mitchell
May 4, 2002
It's a tale only the best conspiracy theorist
could dream up.
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
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 influenza. 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 destruction.
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 been charged. Dr.
Schwartz was an expert in DNA sequencing and pathogenic micro-organisms, who
worked at the Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon, Va.
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
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 recently
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.
The sudden and suspicious deaths of 11 of the world's leading
Who they were:
Nov. 12, 2001 - Benito Que was said to
have been beaten in a Miami parking lot and died later.
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.
Nov. 21, 2001 - Vladimir Pasechnik,
former high-level Russian microbiologist who defected in 1989 to the
U.K. apparently died from a stroke.
Dec. 10, 2001 - Robert M. Schwartz was
stabbed to death in Leesberg, Va. Three Satanists have been
Dec. 14, 2001 - Nguyen Van Set died in
an airlock filled with nitrogen in his lab in Geelong, Australia.
Feb. 9, 2002 - Victor Korshunov had his
head bashed in near his home in Moscow.
Feb. 14, 2002 - Ian Langford was found
partially naked and wedged under a chair in Norwich, England.
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.
March 24, 2002 - David Wynn-Williams
died in a road accident near his home in Cambridge, England.
March 25, 2002 - Steven Mostow of the
Colorado Health Sciences Centre, killed in a plane he was flying