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In December 2002, federal investigators scoured an icy pond on a snow-covered mountain near Frederick, Md., hunting for clues that would lead to the anthrax killer.

As they worked, the Army microbiologist now believed to be responsible for the five deaths stood calmly in their midst, chatting, smiling and watching.

Bruce E. Ivins, the scientist and a Red Cross volunteer, mingled with the investigators in a military tent, serving coffee, doughnuts and chocolate bars to members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and search teams.

Law enforcement officials hustled him away after they realized he was an anthrax researcher who could compromise the investigation, according to Red Cross volunteers who were there. Ivins seemed embarrassed by it all, prompting his friends to tease him about the incident.

Five years passed before the FBI turned its attention to the man who stood on the sidelines of the hunt that day. And Miriam Fleming, who was there as the divers plunged into the murky waters searching for evidence, said she still could not quite believe that the man identified as the anthrax killer was cheerfully working by her side.

“He was kind of goofy, but he was always in a good mood,” said Fleming, a Red Cross volunteer. “He seemed so normal.”

She added: “Now we have to figure it out: Who was the real Bruce Ivins?”

Last week, Ivins killed himself as the authorities were preparing to indict him in the mailing of the anthrax letters in 2001. Yet as his friends and colleagues note, Ivins was almost always in plain sight, offering assistance — and misleading information, officials say — to federal agents running the nation’s longest and most costly bioterrorism inquiry.

In the early days after the letter attacks in September and October 2001, Ivins joined about 90 colleagues at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in a round-the-clock push to test thousands of samples of suspect powder to see if they were anthrax. He even helped to analyze a letter sent to former Sen. Tom Daschle, and went to the Pentagon to discuss the results.

Jeffrey Adamovicz, who was Ivins’ supervisor at the time, said he remembers the day the scientists opened that envelope, placed in a double-sealed bag inside a protective hood designed to deal with dangerous pathogens.

“The anthrax was floating around inside the bag,” Adamovicz said. “It was very scary.”

He said he turned to Ivins and said, “That stuff is amazing.”

“Yes, it is unbelievable,” he recalled Ivins replying. “I have never seen anything like that.”

Months later, as the FBI focused on the Army laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., as a possible source of the anthrax, Ivins twice submitted samples from his own supplies that did not match the deadly spores used in the attack. Investigators later concluded he had chosen irrelevant samples to throw them off his trail.