In a lightning operation involving scores of agents, the FBI arrested two men outside Las Vegas and charged them with obtaining deadly anthrax microbes for use as a terrorist weapon, authorities said yesterday.
One suspect, Larry Wayne Harris, 46, of Lancaster, Ohio, is a microbiologist and white supremacist who is on probation from a 1995 case in which he fraudulently obtained bubonic plague bacteria. He boasted last summer of plans to spread deadly biological toxins in the New York City subway, according to an FBI document.
The other suspect, William Job Leavitt Jr., 47, of Logandale, Nev., owns microbiology labs in Nevada and Germany and is listed in corporate documents as vice president of a Silver Spring health foundation.
Acting on a tip received Wednesday, FBI agents less than 12 hours later swooped down on the two men outside a lab in Henderson, 20 miles southeast of Las Vegas, and seized 40 Petrie dishes and a white cooler. They also seized a beige Mercedes-Benz automobile, sealed it with plastic and took it to a nearby Air Force base for examination.
All the seized items were being tested by FBI and military experts for the bacteria that causes anthrax, a common disease of livestock in developing countries, which has become one of the deadliest weapons in the world's biological arsenals. The Iraqi military has admitted building missiles and bombs that use anthrax as their lethal agent.
Nearly 70 FBI personnel from the Las Vegas field office worked on the case, and a team from the FBI laboratory in Washington flew in to aid the investigation. Army biological warfare experts were also on the scene.
Authorities said that they were cautiously examining the dishes and other material, and expected to find anthrax, though they did not yet have scientific proof.
"We have reason to believe that that's what it is, based on statements and evidence that we developed," said Bobby Siller, special agent in charge of the Nevada division of the FBI.
Both men were charged with conspiracy to possess a biological agent for use as a weapon, a criminal statute an FBI spokesman said that was enacted in 1996.
In the 1995 case, Harris obtained the plague microbes from the American Type Culture Collection, a nonprofit Rockville firm that supplies microorganisms to researchers around the world. He was arrested with three vials of freeze-dried bubonic plague bacteria in the glove compartment of his car.
ATCC officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.
According to an FBI affidavit, Harris admits to being a lieutenant colonel in the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist hate group. Last summer, the affidavit says, he told an unnamed organization that he planned to place a "globe" filled with bubonic plague toxin in a New York subway station, where it would be smashed by a passing train and spread through the tunnel network.
Harris allegedly bragged that that attack would kill hundreds of thousands of people and ruin the U.S. economy, the affidavit said.
In November, Harris told U.S. News and World Report that if his friends were provoked, they would strike at government officials with biochemical weapons.
"If they arrest a bunch of our guys, they get a test tube in the mail," he told the magazine, adding: "How many cities are you willing to lose before you back off?"
Harris also told the magazine that he cultured anthrax, but he denied he wanted to hurt anyone.
He is author of a self-published book titled "Bacteriological Warfare: A Major Threat to North America," which has been described as a how-to manual for biological terrorism.
Neighbors described Harris, who lives with his wife, Carol, a nurse, as a reclusive man whom they rarely saw except when he came into the yard with the couple's dogs, at least six Dobermans and a German shepherd. He had previously worked for a company that tested well water but appeared not to have worked at an outside job since his 1995 arrest, the neighbors said.
Last year, after he pleaded guilty to wire fraud and received a sentence of 18 months' probation in the bubonic plague case, Harris applied for a zoning change to permit him to operate a commercial water-testing lab from the basement of his home, said Rod Ford, Harris' next-door neighbor.
Residents protested and the zoning change was denied by government officials, Ford said. Last summer, the neighbors were alarmed to see that Harris often wore a knee-length white lab coat while in the yard with the dogs.
"The neighbors would say, 'I thought they wouldn't let him run a lab,' " Ford said. But no one challenged him about it, and there was no visible evidence that he was doing laboratory work in the house, he said.
FBI agents were waiting for Carol Harris when she arrived home at 4: 30 p.m. yesterday and escorted her inside, Ford said. They had not emerged more than two hours later, he said.
The current investigation began Wednesday, when a cancer researcher called agents at the Las Vegas FBI office and told them Harris and Leavitt had asked to use the scientist's lab equipment to test the anthrax bacillus.
The researcher, whom the FBI did not name yesterday, said Leavitt claimed to have "military-grade" anthrax in flight bags in the trunk of his car.
On Wednesday night, agents tailed Leavitt and Harris from Room 921 of the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to a meeting with the researcher at a restaurant, the FBI said. The two suspects were joined by a third man, who was not identified by authorities.
After meeting the source at the restaurant, the four men left for an office complex in Henderson. Leavitt and Harris were arrested as they left one of the offices a short time later. The cooler and Petrie dishes were seized inside.
Of all the potential biological weapons, anthrax is probably the most feared.
"Anthrax is on the top of the worry list," said Dr. Philip K. Russell, former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick and now a professor at the Hopkins School of Public Health. "That's because the spores are so infectious and so stable, and because the disease is so hard to manage."
Vaccines can prevent anthrax, and the early use of antibiotics can cure it. But the disease is virulent. Two pounds of the spores, expertly dispersed, could infect a major city. Once a person gets sick, the disease moves swiftly.
"If somebody comes into an emergency room with pneumonia caused by anthrax, it's already too late," Russell said. "It would be impossible to deal with."
The best defense against terrorists armed with anthrax and other bio-weapons, Russell said, is "good police work."
"If they really had anthrax and they really intended to use it, they better put them away for a very long time," he said.
"We're now increasingly concerned about this [biological terrorism]," said Dr. Donald A. Henderson of Johns Hopkins, who served as associate director for life sciences in the Bush White House during the Iraq war.
Representatives of the FBI, Department of Defense, the Department of Health and Human Services and other federal officials met in Baltimore in December to figure out how to respond to urban terrorists armed with biological or chemical weapons.
The FBI, Henderson said, is in the process of adding 145 agents to deal with urban terrorism and the Pentagon is creating special response teams in National Guard units. More than 20 large cities -- including Baltimore -- are launching programs to train police, fire and emergency medical personnel to cope with chemical and biological attacks, he said.
After their arraignment in a Las Vegas courtroom yesterday, Leavitt's lawyer, Lamond Mills, told reporters that his client was a civic leader and churchgoer interested in fighting deadly diseases such as anthrax and AIDS, Reuters news service reported.
Mills also denied a claim in the FBI affidavit that Leavitt and Harris offered to pay the researcher who tipped off the FBI $2 million immediately and $18 million later for lab equipment to test anthrax and other dangerous microbes. "No money changed hands," Mills said.
Leavitt's lawyer acknowledged that his client possessed anthrax bacteria, but he said it was only in a form used to vaccinate animals against the disease.
Corporate records list Leavitt as vice president of Mankind Research Foundation Inc., with a Silver Spring address. A telephone answering machine message at that address says the premises also house the Foundation for Blood Irradiation, and state records list another six corporations, including Lozanov Learning Institute Inc. and the Society for Application of Free Energy Inc.
Mankind Research and Lozanov Learning Institute are both headed by Carl Schleicher, an inventor and entrepreneur who last year led an unsuccessful effort to convert a former Nike missile base in New Jersey as housing for the mentally ill and recovering substance abusers, the Bergen Record reported.
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said there is no evidence Harris took steps toward carrying out his threat to poison the New York subway system. He said the bureau downplayed that element yesterday afternoon to avoid provoking panic among commuters.
Pub Date: 2/20/98