Army experts conducted tests Friday on several vials of a substance that FBI agents said is deadly anthrax, seized from a local businessman and a self-styled germ warfare expert with links to the white supremacist movement.
Attorneys for the two suspects said the impounded substance is a legal anthrax vaccine that is readily available for inoculation of farm animals. But authorities cautioned it may not be known until next week whether, as they warned after seizing the substance Wednesday evening, the vials contain an anthrax culture of a kind that could be used for biological warfare or terrorism.
The substance was being tested at the Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., the FBI said. Larry Wayne Harris, a microbiologist on probation for fraudulently obtaining bubonic plague toxins in Ohio in 1995, and William J. Leavitt, a Las Vegas area entrepreneur and home-laboratory medical researcher, were arrested Wednesday outside a suburban Las Vegas professional building in which Leavitt had laboratory equipment that he leased to a doctor. The two were charged Thursday with possessing anthrax for use as a weapon.
The head of the Las Vegas FBI office, Bobby Siller, said they “posed a potential chemical and biological threat to our community” and had bragged about possessing enough anthrax to wipe out entire cities.
However, Leavitt’s attorney, Lamond Mills, said that when his client was arrested he was “bringing the kind of anthrax vaccine that you give to animals. We believe that it was vaccine-grade and not harmful to anybody.” Mills said Leavitt and Harris had the vaccine because they were negotiating to buy equipment they believed they could adapt to combat viral and bacterial diseases and wanted to test it before putting up any money.
Kirby Wells, a Las Vegas civil attorney, said he represented Leavitt in negotiations in which Leavitt was to buy, for $2 million, laboratory equipment that he hoped could be used to “neutralize” deadly biological agents like anthrax. Wells identified the seller as Ronald G. Rockwell, a Las Vegas research scientist, who he said tipped the FBI that Harris and Leavitt possessed “weapons grade” anthrax.
Rockwell was not identified by name as the informant in a criminal complaint released Thursday after the two suspects were arraigned on charges of possessing anthrax and with conspiring to possess it.
Wells, in an interview, described Leavitt, 47, as an entrepreneur who owns a fire protection company and conducts alternative medical research in a laboratory at his home in suburban Logandale. The lawyer said that for more than a year Leavitt has been experimenting with a machine that he hoped would cleanse viruses from blood and cure numerous diseases, including AIDS.
It was for that purpose, Wells said, that Leavitt asked Harris, whom he knew by reputation, to fly to Las Vegas as a consultant and help test the machine. If the device worked, Rockwell was to be paid up to $18 million more in royalties, Wells said. He said Harris told Leavitt that he had vials of anthrax vaccine that could conclusively determine the efficacy of the equipment Rockwell was offering to sell.
“Instead if showing up with the equipment, Rockwell blew the whistle and told the FBI that they had weapons-grade anthrax. It wasn’t weapons grade, it was vaccine, and I’m hoping this will all turn out to be a tempest in a teapot,” Wells said.
Rockwell could not be reached Friday, and his attorney, Ernest Roark III, did not return telephone calls.
Dan Royal, an osteopath whose office is in the professional building where Harris and Leavitt were arrested, said in an interview that he leased medical equipment from one of Leavitt’s businesses and that he and Leavitt were collaborators on a research project for patients with immunity deficiencies.
Royal confirmed that FBI agents seized a cooler containing wrapped petri dishes from his office, which he said had been delivered after hours earlier Wednesday. But he said he did not order the materials and assumed they were delivered by mistake. He described the petri dishes as “harmless” and in their original factory packaging without sign of use.
The FBI, in its affidavit, said its informant told agents he saw Leavitt carry the cooler into Royal’s office and then remove two items.
Harris, 46, is a microbiology graduate of Ohio State University and a former well tester whose anti-Semitic and anti-black ardor as a member of the white supremacist groups Aryan Nation and Christian Identity Church evolved sometime in 1993 into an obsession with what he believed to be the certainty of global annihilation from biological warfare.