CBSN

Lawyers: Anthrax Suspect Was Duped

Far from planning an anthrax attack, William Leavitt Jr. was involved in a bizarre deal to buy a $2 million germ-killing machine from an FBI informant who double-crossed him, Leavitt's lawyers said Friday.

Leavitt was described by his attorneys as a well-meaning, if gullible scientist.

Leavitt and Larry Wayne Harris, a white supremacist, were arrested in suburban Henderson Wednesday outside a medical office and charged with conspiracy to possess and possession of a biological agent.

CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart reports that FBI agents were so spooked by a tip that two men had a carload of anthrax near downtown Las Vegas that they didn't even wait for their own experts to check what it really was before calling in the Army.

Stewart said it was Harris' background that especially jangled investigators' nerves. As a member of the Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group often linked to violence, Harris had dabbled in deadly bio-hazards before.

Leavitt's lawyers said their client was operating under the assumption that what Harris had was Anthrax vaccine, which is legal and safe.

The FBI was awaiting tests Friday to determine if it was vaccine or material grade anthrax, which is potent enough to kill thousands of people.

Leavitt is married with three children and runs his own fire-protection business. The FBI says he also owns microbiological laboratories in his hometown of Logandale, Nev., and Frankfurt, Germany.

His criminal attorney, Lamond Mills, said the FBI's informant, Ronald Rockwell, was trying to "scam" Leavitt into buying a germ-killing machine.

"When he couldn't scam 'em, he went the other way. He became a good guy for the FBI," Mills said.

Leavitt's business lawyer, Kirby Wells, said the machine was called the AZ-58 Ray Tube Frequency Instrument Prototype, and was hyped by Rockwell in glossy brochures as being able to flush the body clean of bacteria and viruses.

"It looked like a bunch of bells and whistles," said Wells, who said he saw a picture of the machine. "What made my client believe there was substance to that thing, I don't know. I wish I did."

A promotion on the Internet has a bold headline: "ANTHRAX," and goes on to say the AZ-58 "can treat large numbers of people at the same time."

"Has the greatest health discovery in history been suppressed?" the ad asks.

Leavitt was close to buying the machine in a $2 million deal, but wanted to test it before making a $100,000 down payment and arranged to fly Harris to Las Vegas about a week ago to help, said Wells.

Leavitt believed that Harris was transporting anthrax vaccine, Mills said. But Rockwell told the FBI that Leavitt described it as military-grade.

Leavitt and Harris were arrested Wednesday night after the FBI, with Rockwell's help, tailed the men to a medical office in suburban Henderson. Authorities reoved a cooler and petri dishes from the office, and sealed the men's beige Mercedes in plastic before transporting it to an Air Force base.

Leavitt, 47, and Harris, 46, of Lancaster, Ohio, are being held without bond.

In an affidavit, the FBI said described Rockwell as a cancer research scientist who was convicted of felony extortion in 1981 and 1982. But the FBI has vouched for his credibility, saying he came forward without getting a deal and was a "citizen performing his civic duty."

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report