Germ warfare plot exposed

By Michael Fleeman Associated Press Published:

LAS VEGAS _ The call to the FBI came from an informant, a cancer researcher who said he had been contacted by two men who needed to test their store of anthrax _ perhaps enough to "wipe out the city."

In the tense hours that followed, the FBI tailed the men by ground and air, briefly losing them in the desert darkness. The men were arrested Wednesday night in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb, as they allegedly tried to arrange the lab test with the informant for $20 million.

As the city breathed a sigh of relief, the men were charged Thursday with possessing a deadly germ for use as a weapon. The two-count complaint alleges conspiracy to possess and possession of a biological agent.

The FBI did not discuss a potential motive.

The FBI in an affidavit said one suspect was a white supremacist who last summer spoke of a plan to release bubonic plague on New York City subways, causing "hundreds of thousands of deaths" in a massacre that would ruin the economy, surprise the military and be blamed on Iraqis.

That man, Larry Wayne Harris, 46, of Lancaster, Ohio, and William Leavitt, 47, of Las Vegas and Logandale, Nev., appeared before a federal magistrate handcuffed and shackled at the ankles.

Their detention hearing was delayed until Monday while the government runs tests to determine whether the anthrax was military grade or simply an anthrax livestock vaccine.

Leavitt, who has no criminal record, owns a microbiology lab in Logandale, north of Las Vegas, and another in Frankfurt, Germany, the FBI said. His attorney, Lamond Mills, said his client is innocent _ and said he believed the FBI would find that the material in the car was merely an anthrax vaccine used to inoculate cattle and is not illegal to possess.

Harris' attorney, Michael Kennedy, said the credibility of the FBI informant "is something we're going to look into."

The informant said Leavitt told him he had "military grade anthrax" in flight bags in the trunk of the Mercedes, according to the affidavit. The informant said he saw eight to 10 bags marked "biological" in the trunk.

The FBI said the pair were trying to arrange to buy the informant's testing equipment for $2 million up front and another $18 million later.

Bobby Siller, the FBI agent in charge of Nevada, said authorities acted aggressively on the tip from the informant because of the potential danger from anthrax, an infectious disease that usually afflicts only animals, especially cattle and sheep. But anthrax spores can be produced in a dry form suitable for weapons and can be fatal to humans in microscopic amounts.

"Our primary concern was the safety of the community," said Siller, who added that there was no indication the men had any target.

Still, people flooded the lines of Las Vegas radio talk shows with questions and concerns about safety. In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at first denied any link between the two men and the city as a target, then complained the FBI had not informed city officials of Harris' alleged plot.

The arrests, which raised the specter of domestic terrorism and memories of the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber, also come amid escalating tension with Iraq, where leader Saddam Hussein is suspected of manufacturing biological weapons such as anthrax.

After the arrests at a business complex in Henderson, the Mercedes the men were driving was sealed in plastic and taken to Nellis Air Force Base.

The FBI affidavit said the informant called Wednesday to say he was a research scientist and had been contacted by Harris and Leavitt, who asked him to use some of his equipment to test vials of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax.

Over the next 12 hours, the informant kept in touch with the FBI and at least one phone call was tapped. The document outlined a meeting of Harris and Leavitt with another man at the Gold Coast Hotel.

That man, who was neither identified nor charged, was later tracked down by the FBI and related their conversation.

"Harris had shown him what appeared to be a vial, which was wrapped in cardboard and stated that it contained anthrax," the affidavit said. "Harris held the vial in his hand and further stated that there was enough there to 'wipe out the city."'

The FBI confirmed the informant's claims to be a research scientist, specializing in cancer research. The source had two felony convictions for conspiracy to commit extortion in 1981 and 1982, but the FBI said there was no deal cut for his cooperation.

As for the informant, he first met Harris at a Denver science convention last August, the FBI said, and had met Leavitt about six weeks ago. The three allegedly were working on a project to test a device to supposedly "deactivate" viruses and bacteria.

The men also had contacted the informant "some time ago" about testing E. coli and Bacillus subtilis bacteria, and on Tuesday told the source they had other organisms to test, including Bacillus licheniformis and Bacillus anthracis, the FBI said.

Harris and Leavitt were observed leaving the hotel at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, with Leavitt carrying a white foam cooler which he placed in the Mercedes. They met the informant at a restaurant before going to the medical office, where they were arrested an hour later.

The Mercedes is registered to Gary Gerwin of Palm Springs, Calif., the FBI said. The agency did not release other details on him.

In a 1997 interview for a documentary, Harris claimed he got anthrax spores by sinking a probe into a 20-year-old burial site for cows infected with the disease. Harris claimed he cultured the spores in his lab, but refused to say if he possessed anthrax, said interviewer James Neff, an Ohio State University journalism professor who collaborated on the never-aired program with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Last year, Harris pleaded guilty to a count of fraud after he was accused of illegally obtaining freeze-dried, inactive bubonic plague bacteria through the mail from a Maryland laboratory. Harris, the author of a self-published book called "Bacteriological Warfare: A Major Threat to North America," said he never intended to hurt anyone and was sentenced to 18 months of probation.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which publishes the quarterly newsletter Intelligence Report about such groups, Harris was an Aryan Nations member at the time of the plague case, said spokesman Mark Potok.

After first denying that Harris had been a member, Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler said Thursday that Harris joined the group in the early 1990s and left in 1995.

Butler, speaking at the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, did not say why Harris quit.

"He's not a member now," Butler told KHQ-TV of Spokane, Wash. "All I know is he said he was a microbiologist."

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