A substance once feared to be a biological weapon turned out to be a safe form of anthrax used in animal vaccines, and one of the two men arrested in a case that sent fear through the region was released from jail Saturday.
“I absolutely have no hard feelings,” a visibly shaken William Leavitt Jr. said at a news conference, calling the circumstances that led to his arrest “misunderstandings and probably some miscommunication.”
The FBI insisted Saturday that arresting the two men on biological weapons charges was necessary to protect the public.
“Because of the potential serious threat to the community, our actions had to be quick and decisive,” said Bobby Siller, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Las Vegas office. “We had to act the way we did.”
Under an agreement his attorney reached with prosecutors, Leavitt will be allowed to remain free on his own recognizance while authorities determine whether to drop charges.
The other man, Larry Wayne Harris of Lancaster, Ohio, who is on probation for an earlier conviction, remained in jail and was scheduled to appear in court Monday for a detention hearing.
The anthrax material, tested at an Army laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., was found by FBI agents Wednesday during the arrests of Leavitt and Harris.
Both men were charged with conspiracy to possess and possession of a biological agent for use as a weapon. Tests showed the material was not military-grade anthrax, which is potent enough to kill thousands of people.
“Legally, this means their case goes down the toilet,” said Lamond Mills, Leavitt’s lawyer. “I would expect the U.S. attorney to drop the charges.
“Let them now ‘fess up and say it was a mistake,” he said.
Mills said a deal to drop charges against Leavitt would require him to promise to stop some of his laboratory work.
Another one of his attorneys, Kirby Wells, said Leavitt, 47, was emotional after hearing about the tests.
“I told him the good news. We embraced,” he said.
Siller declined to explain why charges would not be dropped immediately. He defended the FBI’s investigation, which was based on an informant’s tip and statements made by the suspects, and said it would have been “irresponsible” not to follow up on the allegation.
Leavitt and Harris had, themselves, portrayed the material as dangerous military-grade anthrax, Siller said.
Agents also seized other biological material in Ohio from houses owned by Harris, a former Aryan Nations member. That material was still being tested at Fort Detrick, and those tests will not be completed before Monday.
A message left at the federal public defender office, which is representing Harris, was not immediately returned.
Harris, 46, pleaded guilty in 1995 to wire fraud after his arrest for obtaining three vials of freeze-dried bubonic plague bacteria through the mail. He was put on 18 months of probation.
Even if the biological weapons charge is dropped, Harris could still face penalties for violating probation.
Harris and Leavitt were turned in by Ronald Rockwell, whom the FBI portrayed as a “citizen performing his civic duty.” Mills called Rockwell a twice-convicted extortionist and scam artist who went to the FBI when a business deal turned sour.
Rockwell, a Las Vegas resident, said in media interviews he was scared when Leavitt and Harris, who were interested in what he portrayed as his disease-fighting machine, said they had the deadly bacteria.
Leavitt and Harris were arrested outside a medical office in Henderson, Nev.
The case frightened many around the country, especially near Las Vegas. People flooded talk-radio shows asking about evacuation plans, the symptoms of anthrax and the safety of the region’s water supply. Surplus stores sold out of stocks of gas masks. The arrests came as the United States was considering military action against Iraq for harboring biological weapons.
Five days before the arrests, Rockwell and Leavitt appeared for two hours on a local radio show to talk about how they planned to test biological agents being brought to Las Vegas by Harris, according to a tape of the show reviewed Saturday.
They said during “The Lou Epton Show” on KXNT-AM on Feb. 13 that the testing was to be done on a device that could cure an anthrax infection.