Hearing Set In Anthrax Case

With the key evidence turning out to be an innocuous vaccine rather than a lethal biological weapon, authorities must sort out what to do with two men who in just days went from suspected terrorists to bumbling scientists.

The federal prosecutors' decision could be revealed as early as today at a detention hearing for Larry Wayne Harris. Harris and William Leavitt Jr. were arrested last week and charged with felony counts of possessing a biological agent for use as a weapon.

Those charges now could be reduced or thrown out altogether.

Leavitt was released from jail on his own recognizance Saturday, when FBI tests found the material seized from the men was a safe anthrax vaccine, rather than military-grade anthrax capable of slaughtering a city.

Harris, put on probation after a 1995 conviction for carrying another biological agent, bubonic plague bacteria, remained jailed in downtown Las Vegas.

FBI agents continued to investigate, and on Sunday they removed boxloads of materials from Leavitt's home in the farming community of Logandale, about 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

It was not known what was taken. FBI agents at the scene declined to comment. FBI officials said over the weekend only that their investigation was continuing.

Leavitt's attorney, Lamond Mills, called the search "a fishing expedition."

"I think they're embarrassed, and I think they're looking for anything they can find to bring charges against Bill Leavitt," Mills said.

In Maryland, meanwhile, a government lab was testing material seized from Harris' Ohio home to determine whether it is a dangerous and illegal biological agent, federal sources have said.

The arrests of Leavitt and Harris on Wednesday in Henderson, Nev., just outside Las Vegas, triggered a nationwide scare about biological weapons. The fears were only heightened by U.S. officials' weighing of a military strike against Iraq for refusing to let United Nations investigators look for some of the very same kind of weapons.

Leavitt's attorneys contend he was planning to use the material to test an unorthodox disease-killing machine he was considering buying for $2 million from a man who later tipped off the FBI.

That informant, Ronald Rockwell, has said he turned in Leavitt and Harris last week when Leavitt claimed to possess the deadly anthrax bacteria, which could kill thousands of people. Leavitt's attorneys said Rockwell is a con artist who double-crossed the two men when the deal to buy the machine turned sour.

Leavitt has a fire-safety supply company in Las Vegas and has also been involved in non-mainstream research seeking cures for AIDS and multiple sclerosis.

Leavitt's friends said they were relieved that he was released from jail.

"I just knew that whatever it was, he wasn't doing what they said he was doing," said Jeff Buynak, who rents a small one-story house from Leavitt. "Hes a good, honest citizen and works hard."

By MICHAEL FLEEMAN, Associated Press Writer. ©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed