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Testing of suspected anthrax begins

Suspects/sketch
Leavitt (left) and Harris appeared before a federal magistrate Thursday.  

Sample of seized material taken from Las Vegas

In this story: February 20, 1998
Web posted at: 3:30 p.m. EST (2030 GMT)

FREDERICK, Maryland (CNN) -- Testing began Friday to determine if the substance seized from two suspects now under arrest in Nevada is the potentially deadly bacteria anthrax, law enforcement sources told CNN. At least partial results from the tests were possible later in the day.

A source familiar with the investigation said a sample of the substance was flown in from Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas and arrived on Friday morning at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, located in Frederick, Maryland.

Larry Wayne Harris and William Job Leavitt Jr. were arrested by the FBI on Wednesday night in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb and were charged on 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.

It identified Harris, 46, of Lancaster, Ohio, as a white separatist 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.

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.

He and Leavitt, 47, of Las Vegas and Logandale, Nevada, appeared before a federal magistrate on Thursday handcuffed and shackled at the ankles.

Their hearing was delayed until Monday while the FBI and military biological weapons experts run tests to determine whether the confiscated suspected anthrax was military grade or simply an anthrax livestock vaccine.

Two-stage testing possible

The Mercedes the two men were driving was sealed in plastic and taken to Nellis Air Force Base after the arrests.

Merecedes
The Mercedes was wrapped in plastic and taken to Nellis Air Force Base after the arrests  

The Fort Detrick facility is one of only two laboratories in the country listed as "Biosafety Four," meaning the lab has the highest level of security.

The sample will be examined in two-step process that begins by determining whether anthrax is present, even in a harmless amount.

If the first test determines there is even a trace of anthrax, a second test will be conducted to determine if there is an active culture present which poses a health risk. Active anthrax -- even in microscopic amounts -- is considered extraordinarily dangerous.

Informant broke case

Leavitt, who has no criminal record, owns a microbiology lab in Logandale 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 an informant whose tip led to the arrests "is something we're going to look into."

The informant, a Las Vegas area research scientist named Ronald Rockwell, said he had been contacted by two men who needed to test the anthrax in their possession -- perhaps enough to "wipe out the city." It is not yet clear what city Rockwell was referring to.

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

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

Correspondents Pierre Thomas and Jennifer Auther contributed to this report.

 
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