Bioterror suspects hard to find

WASHINGTON — In a Wisconsin courtroom a few years ago, a federal judge and two lawyers faced a bearded, longhaired figure known as the "Mad Scientist," confronting then what now worries millions of Americans: biological terrorism.

Thomas Leahy was about to be sentenced to prison. In the basement of his Janesville, Wis., home he had stored "boxes and boxes and boxes" of chemistry experiments. On his shelves he kept pickle jars and petri dishes, and he had learned to make ricin, one of the deadliest known toxins, mainly by studying his chemistry and math books and ordering castor beans, the source of the poison.

He also was trying to cultivate anthrax, the deadly bacterium being used to terrorize parts of the country.

Leahy toiled in his home wearing a white plastic gown and a gas mask. He developed an "enemies list." He warned his wife he was going to mail the ricin and maybe ricin-laced razor blades. He bragged to his stepson about his scheme to poison Lake Michigan.

At Leahy's sentencing in January 1998, U.S. District Judge John Shabaz said he was deeply concerned about the "mass destruction" that might have taken place had Leahy not been apprehended.

Because ricin can be easily converted to aerosol form, it is a potential weapon of mass destruction.

Yet it was just a fluke the FBI found Leahy's basement laboratory and then only because he had shot and wounded his stepson in the cellar one evening in 1996.

Authorities hope for tip

Leahy's case and others illustrate some of the challenges facing authorities as they search for the sender of anthrax letters that have killed three people and infected at least 13 others.

Some law-enforcement officials believe they, too, will need a lucky break or a tip to find who is behind the current bioterrorism campaign. One top-ranking FBI official, who asked not to be identified, was blunt: "I don't think the American public should expect we're going to automatically stop an isolated case of anthrax in the mail any more than we can stop someone from taking a gunshot wound. The ability to stop such things is beyond our grasp."

The Leahy case illustrates another aspect of law enforcement's efforts to stop biowarfare in the United States. In the few cases where bioterror suspects have been arrested, they have seldom received substantial prison time.

Leahy was originally sentenced to 12 years and seven months.

But an appeals court cut the sentence in half. If not for the state prison sentence he received for wounding his stepson, Leahy — who proclaimed his devotion to Adolf Hitler and embraced the cause of Arab extremists — might be about to leave prison.

Starting Thursday, new federal sentencing guidelines will cover crimes involving chemical and biological weapons, and the result will be tougher sentences.

Under the old guidelines, a terrorist who sent anthrax through the mail could receive as little as 17-1/2 years in prison. After Thursday, a convicted defendant would face 30 years to life in prison. The new guidelines would apply only to offenses committed after Thursday.

Fear of bioterrorism isn't new

There have been others who apparently were bent on waging bioterrorism:

• In 1993, Canadian customs officials stopped white supremacist Thomas Lavy as he entered their country from Alaska. He was carrying guns, $98,000 and a container of ricin. The Canadians took the powder but released Lavy.

Two years later, FBI agents and Army chemical-warfare specialists raided Lavy's cabin in the Arkansas Ozarks and discovered a large quantity of castor beans. He was arrested; a few days later, he hanged himself in his jail cell.

• Four members of a Patriots Council in Minnesota, a tax-protest group, were arrested in 1995 for plotting to kill a federal marshal. They had produced ricin in a home lab and planned to smear it on the door handles of the marshal's vehicle. Yet they were given relatively minor prison terms. Their leader, Douglas Baker, received just three years in prison.

Leahy had only a high-school diploma and never kept a real job. But he immersed himself in his chemistry and math books, in political treatises and works on biochemical weapons.

"Tom mostly was just fascinated by this stuff," his lawyer, David Mandell, said.

"He had every kind of poison and insecticide and was trying to come up with new poisons. ... He was down there being a mad scientist. That's what he called himself."

Mandell said Leahy wanted the poisons to rid the neighborhood of rodents. But, he conceded, Leahy also "could have killed a lot of people."

Federal prosecutor John Vaudreuil said Leahy had enough of the poison — 0.69 gram of 4 percent pure ricin — to kill at least 125 people. He noted Leahy also had other lethal toxins that could have been used to kill.

Attempts to interview Leahy, now 47, at the state prison in Oshkosh, Wis., were turned down by prison officials.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.