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Maybe anthrax plot wasn't a plot at all Man who tipped FBI was in odd business deal with suspects

A week ago, they chatted on a Las Vegas radio talk show about a deal to build and sell a New Age therapeutic device that could supposedly cure deadly diseases with the flip of a switch.

And, bragged Ronald G. Rockwell, he and William J. Leavitt Jr. planned to test the gizmo on the deadly anthrax bacterium.

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But Wednesday, Rockwell set the FBI on the trail of his potential business partner and another man. Then all hell broke loose.

What the FBI presented Thursday as a sinister plot to use deadly anthrax bacteria in a terrorist attack began yesterday to look more like an eccentric business collaboration gone sour.

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Army biological warfare specialists were still testing vials

yesterday of suspected anthrax seized during the Wednesday arrest of Leavitt and Larry Wayne Harris, a white supremacist who the FBI says had threatened to wage germ warfare in the New York City subway.

But as details about the relationship between Rockwell, the FBI's informant, and Leavitt and Harris emerged, some people in Nevada began to wonder whether Leavitt is not a would-be bio-terrorist but an idealistic scientist with monumentally bad judgment.

"He was kind of like some Walter Mitty scientist, hobbyist guy who got caught up with the wrong people," said Jim Villanucci, whose radio program took calls Thursday from Leavitt's admirers.

"He may have been taken in because of his own naivete," said Daniel F. Royal, Leavitt's friend and physician. "His character is really above reproach."

It was outside Royal's office in Henderson, Nev., that FBI agents nabbed Leavitt and Harris.

Inside they retrieved a white Styrofoam cooler and petri dishes placed there after Royal had gone.

No one could say yesterday how the two suspects and the FBI tipster met, but they were linked by an interest in new ways to vanquish human ills.

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Rockwell had the rights to a cure-all gizmo called the AZ-58 Ray Tube Frequency Instrument Prototype.

Leavitt spent long nights in his home lab laboring to devise treatments for multiple sclerosis and AIDs and dreamed of ending drug addiction with herbs, acupuncture and subliminal messages.

Even Harris took time out from racism and religious extremism to sell medical devices called "colloidal silver generators," said to produce a disease-fighting silver concoction, according to journalists who interviewed him last year.

The scheme that brought them together, according to several people they told of the plans, went like this:

Rockwell would sell the ray tube to Leavitt for $2 million, with a possible $18 million more to follow. Harris would help test the miracle machine on anthrax and maybe other organisms in Nevada.

If the AZ-58 worked, Leavitt would mass-produce it in Germany and market it in Europe, far from the pesky oversight of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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At least that's what Rockwell and Leavitt said on Lou Epton's talk show on KXNT-AM in Las Vegas on Feb. 13.

"As we speak, cultures are being prepared -- anthrax or something like it," Rockwell said, according to Epton.

The FBI's criminal complaint identifies the source of the tip that led to the anthrax seizure as "a research scientist specializing in cancer research."

The document noted that he had two felony convictions for conspiracy to commit extortion in 1981 and 1982, but it said he was providing information "simply as a citizen performing his civic duty."

Lawyers for Leavitt said yesterday that the source was Rockwell, and they questioned whether his motive was so selfless.

Kirby Wells, an attorney who helped Leavitt negotiate to purchase the ray tube, said Rockwell was supposed to deliver the machine Wednesday night for testing.

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He may have called the FBI, Wells said, because he feared the ray tube wouldn't work.

When Leavitt and Harris showed up, the machine "was not there."

"But a lot of guys with cellophane and tape were," Wells said.

They were FBI and military agents, who used the tape to seal Leavitt's Mercedes and the rest of the seized materials.

At first glance, Leavitt and Harris make the oddest of couples. One is a clean-cut former Mormon bishop and devoted father of three; the other is a bearded, wild-talking prophet of biological apocalypse with a prior conviction for obtaining deadly bubonic plague bacteria.

Leavitt had collaborated with Carl Schleicher, a Silver Spring, Md., inventor and entrepreneur, on several unorthodox projects.

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A few years ago, they sought to perfect a basement sealant as a barrier against radon gas.

More recently, they considered purchasing a bankrupt hotel in the desert near Palm Springs, Calif., as a drug rehabilitation center.

"He's a very religious guy," Schleicher said. "Very honorable. I had no reason to think otherwise."

But the two parted ways last year.

Leavitt earns his living selling fire extinguishers and other equipment in Las Vegas under the name AAA Fire Protection.

But his true interest, said Royal, his doctor, is his quest to ease human suffering.

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Few describe Harris with the kind of glowing language used by acquaintances of Leavitt.

Michael Weber and Mimi Morris, who are making a documentary on extremist anti-government groups, interviewed Harris for 5 1/2 hours in June and found him an intelligent but frightening man.

Harris said then that he had given up membership in the white supremacist group Aryan Nations, and leaders of the group in Ohio confirmed it, Weber said.

But he remained active in Christian Identity, a racist religious sect that preaches that blacks are "mud people" and Jews are the children of Satan.

Harris was obsessed with the threat of a devastating germ-warfare attack on the United States from Iraq and cast himself in the role of protector -- but only of white Christians, Weber said.

"He wants to protect the America he wants to protect," Weber said yesterday from his home in Columbus, Ohio.

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"He's not offering antibiotics to African-Americans and Jews."

Harris, a state-licensed microbiologist, talked about how an anthrax solution could be spread with a fire extinguisher or paint sprayer, Weber said.

He knowledgeably discussed the particle size necessary for people to inhale the deadly microbes.

Weber said Harris told them that about 1994, he traveled to a northeast Ohio farm where an anthrax outbreak had been reported in the 1950s.

He found the place where infected cattle had been buried and collected soil samples.

"When we asked him whether he had anthrax at the time, he just smiled," Morris said.

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"He was wary. He was very much aware of his legal status."

Harris is still on probation from a 1995 wire fraud conviction in connection with his ordering of bubonic plague germs from the nonprofit American Type Culture Collection in Rockville, Md.

ATCC released a statement yesterday saying it has never shipped anthrax bacteria to Harris or Leavitt.

Since 1994, the organization has made only five shipments of anthrax, it said, all to "qualified research institutes in the United States," which it did not name.

Pub Date: 2/21/98


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