TOXIC TERROR (The Playboy Book of True Crime)

This story appeared in Playboy, November 1996. It was later included  in The Playboy Book of True Crime.

playboy book of true crime


by Michael Reynolds

Americans grew nervous about terrorism this past summer. Someone set off a huge truck bomb that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms busted members of a militia unit, the Viper Team, that packed enough explosives and firepower to take down part of Phoenix. TWA flight 800 disintegrated off Long Island, killing 230. Then a pipe bomb went off during the Olympics in Atlanta, leaving one person dead.

If those events made you jittery, you had better stop reading. What follows is a lot scarier.

The first rumblings could be detected back in the early Nineties. Japanese authorities paid little attention to Shoko Asahara when he began broadcasting charges that he and his Aum Supreme Truth cult were the targets of a biochemical attack by a satanic New World Order guided by Freemasons, Jews and the U.S. government. After two gas attacks on unsuspecting Japanese citizens, the blind Asahara and his apocalyptic cohorts were themselves facing charges of murder and biochemical terrorism.

The sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway and the village of Matsumoto opened a new door for terrorists. “The attack in Japan has global implications,” said Israeli terrorism specialist Yonah Alexander. “It’s a quantum leap to terrorism by mass destruction.”

Several years ago the CIA warned that “clandestine production of chemical and biological weapons for multiple-casualty attack raises no greater technical obstacles than does the clandestine production of chemical narcotics or heroin. One successful incident would significantly lower the threshold of restraint on their application by other terrorists.”

That nasty cat left the bag on the Tokyo subway in March 1995. The attack showed that deployment of nerve gas, plague, anthrax or an infectious virus into a populated area is not beyond the capabilities of even a small band of enterprising terrorists

Biochemical agents can be introduced easily into a building’s ventilation system. Effective mass destruction can be accomplished with a payload aboard a single-engine Cessna such as the one that crashed into the White House a few years ago. If one crazed amateur can violate the airspace of what is supposed to be the most secure building in America and leave his plane piled up a few feet from the president’s bedroom, a dedicated terrorist can manage a successful airborne biochemical attack on any major city in the country.

It is likely only curious coincidence that the Japanese cult was reportedly experimenting with and manufacturing biochemical-warfare agents at the same time several members of the Minnesota Patriots were concocting batches of a deadly material called ricin. Thomas Lavy, a former pipeline electrician  who, on an April day in 1993, was driving a truck from Alaska to Canada, en route to Arkansas, was also implicated in carrying ricin. When Canadian customs agents searched the truck they found four guns, 20,000 rounds of ammunition, 13 pounds of black powder, neo-Nazi literature and three handylittle books: The Poisoner’s Handbook, Silent Death by Uncle Fester and Get Even: The Complete Book of Dirty Tricks. The first two books detail how to extract ricin from castor beans. Also present were a plastic bag filled with white powder, and about $ 80,000 in cash.

“Be careful,” Lavy said to the inspectors. “Don’t open that bag. That’s ricin. It’ll kill you.”

A call was placed to U.S. Customs for a computer check on the man. It carne back negative: no arrest warrants pending. The Canadians had Lavy fill out the proper forms for the cash and sent him on his way without the bag. They labeled it “unknown white powder” and put it on a storage shelf.

It remained there for weeks, 130 grams of a toxic natural poison. Had anyone been curious enough to open the bag, the inhalation of a single particle would have introduced its victim to exploding red blood cells–internal hemorrhaging.

Ricin is a toxin consisting of one or more proteins found in the common castor bean, Ricinus communis. Simple procedures can separate crude ricin from the bean into a variety of protein products that have extremely toxic effects. They all are deadly. Ricin is comparable in toxicity to the most potent synthetic nerve poisons. It is 6000 times more toxic than cyanide. There is no antidote.

Symptoms? If taken by mouth, after a delay of several days there are vomiting and high fever. Death can occur up to 14 days after the onset of symptoms. Injected or inhaled, the results are the same as if ingested orally, but the symptoms (fever, malaise, weakness) begin within several hours and death occurs in a few days. Death is from systemic failure, similar to shock.

Ricin is one of the deadliest plant toxins known. It is impossible to detect in an autopsy because it is a protein. It is odorless, tasteless, untreatable and fatal even in minute doses.

So what was Lavy doing with enough of the stuff to wipe out a large suburb?

Thomas Lavy took the answer with him when he hanged himself in an Arkansas jail cell two days before Christmas last year. He had been arrested on December 20 by FBI agents who had surrounded his little stone house in northern Arkansas. Inside Lavy’s house agents found a tin Christmas fruit can filled with a pound and a half of castor beans and more recipe books for making ricin.

Lavy’s attorney, Sam Heuer, said his client had planned to use his ricin for peaceful purposes, such as killing coyotes that threatened his chickens. “We have the right to have rat poison or coyote poison,” said Heuer. “Just like we have the right to have a .357 Magnum.”

Robert Govar, a federal prosecutor in Arkansas, countered that such claims “would be tantamount to saying you can use a thermonuclear device to protect your property from break-in or burglary.”

When Lavy killed himself he was facing a charge of possession of a toxic substance with intent to use it as a weapon under the Biological Weapons Antiterrorism Act of 1989. Curiously, possession of ricin is not against the law. The law applies only if it can be proved that you plan to use it as a weapon. In Lavy’s case it was clear that the amount of poison he had amassed was more than enough to kill every coyote in at least five states.

Were others on Lavy’s wavelength out there?

On the morning of May 20, 1992 Colette Baker walked into the Pope County, Minnesota sheriff’s office with marital problems. She said her husband, Doug, had pointed a shotgun at her and threatened to kill her. While this was disconcerting enough, Colette said Doug had something else that might be of interest to the sheriff. She said Doug had some poison that could “kill a person on contact.”

The next day Baker returned carrying a red coffee can and set it down on the sheriff’s desk. She took out a babyfood jar, a fingernail-polish bottle, a pair of white rubber gloves and a scrap of paper with a handwritten note that read:

DOUG, Be extremely careful! After you mix the powder with the gel, the slightest contact will kill you! If you breath sic the powder or get it in your eyes, your sic a dead man. Dispose all instruments used. Always wear rubber gloves and then destroy them also. Good hunting!

PS. Destroy this note!

Colette added that her husband also had an arsenal of weapons and ammunition, plus a few explosives. Tellingly, Doug Baker’s friend Richard Oelrich had run afoul of tax collectors and was being hit by the IRS for back taxes.

The banal assortment of household containers Colette brought into the sheriff’s office was sent on to FBI chemist Thomas Lynch in Washington, D.C. Lynch identified the powder in the baby-food jar as Ricinus communis. Nearly a full gram of it. The green gel was dimethyl sulfoxide mixed with skin cream. The DMSO was a powerful enough solvent that any poison mixed with it would be absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream in a matter of seconds.

Lynch was impressed by the Minnesotans’ straightforward but clever delivery system. It wasn’t so technically complex as what the Bulgarian secret police used on a defector 15 years earlier, but the results would have been the same: certain death. In 1978 a Soviet-sponsored assassin reached out with the tip of his umbrella outside a London Underground station and touched the thigh of Georgi Markov. The fitted tip injected a tiny perforated pellet filled with ricin beneath Markov’s skin. At the autopsy all that was found were the remains of the pellet, which was slightly larger than a pinhead. The ricin, being protein-based, had been completely absorbed by Markov’s system. The only trace detectable was in a microscopic fragment of the pellet.

If the biotoxin and DMSO cream were smeared on a door handle or steering wheel, the ricin would disappear by the time a medical examiner laid hands on the victim.

The FBI and U.S. Marshal’s Office in Minnesota obtained court-ordered records from phones believed to be used by Doug Baker, Richard Oelrich and others. A federal cooperating witness said he heard who had the poison, who paid for the castor beans and who processed the beans into ricin. Eventually the feds discovered who was targeted. At the top of Oelrich’s hit list was U.S. Deputy Marshal Bill Ott in Minneapolis. He also added “any other deputy marshal” who got involved in the seizure of Oelrich’s property.

One year after Tom Lavy crossed the Canadian border with his quarter pound of ricin, some members of the Minnesota Patriots Council were arrested on charges of possessing ricin. Court papers claim that the men discussed blowing up a federal building, killing a law-enforcement officer and obtaining assault weapons.

In February 1995 Leroy Wheeler, 55, and Douglas Baker, 30, were convicted in federal court of possession of ricin. Dennis Henderson, 37, and Richard Oelrich, 55, were convicted of similar charges in October These Minnesota rustics with their deadly ricin were the first terrorists convicted under the Biological Weapons Antiterrorism Act of 1989. Two months later Tom Lavy faced the same charge.

Christian Patriot, militia and white supremacist publications routinely feature articles on biological and chemical warfare. Detailed instruction on the manufacture and deployment of poisons, nerve gas and other deadly chemical agents are available in such books as Assorted Nasties and Silent Death. These can be easily obtained on the Internet and through various mail-order houses that cater to the paramilitary movement.

Assorted Nasties, published by Desert Publication of El Dorado, Arkansas, is 138 pages of detailed instruction for the manufacture of 22 of the most highly toxic substances known. It also outlines several delivery systems for these agents such as poison bullets, toxic smoke grenades and contact poison applicators.

Silent Death, one of the books Lavy had in his truck, is the classic do-it-yourself guide to biochemical terrorism. From “Nerve Gas: The Poor Man’s Atom Bomb” to “Time Delay Poisons” to the toxin of mass death, “Botulism,” Silent Death covers all that any fanatic needs to know to kill a single enemy or wipe out several thousand people at a cost of around $ 1 per acre. “I’m sure you’ll be surprised how easy to make and use these little gems are,” concludes the introduction. “Read and enjoy.”

The item that put biochemical weaponry into the hands of the Minnesota boys and Tom Lavy was a cheap little terrorist kit called Silent Tool of Justice. The book was advertised in hardcore Christian patriot publications as “including instructions for extracting the deadly poison ricin from castor beans. Agent of choice for CIA, KGB, etc. A single bean will kill an evildoer. Interesting suggestions for preparations and delivery, etc.”

For $ 12, Maynard Campbell of Maynard’s Avenging Angel Supply in Ashland, Oregon would supply ten castor beans and an instruction booklet detailing the manufacture of ricin.

Campbell, a white supremacist Christian, is now serving time in prison for threatening to kill federal officials. He was in an armed standoff with Oregon police for nearly 12 hours, and was sentenced to more than ten years in prison. Campbell had written Kingdoms at War’, a guerrilla manual that has been distributed among patriot extremists. It advocates autonomous terrorist cells and assassinations as necessary tactics in a war against the federal government. “Corrupt judges,” writes Campbell, “should simply be shot dead.”

In May 1995 Aryan Nations member Larry Harris, 43, of Lancaster, Ohio was arrested for illegally buying three vials of bubonic plague bacteria through the mail. Harris ordered the freeze-dried bacteria using an identification number from the food-testing laboratory where he worked. In a subsequent search of Harris’ house, handgrenade triggers, homemade explosive devices and detonating fuses were discovered.

On January 18, not far from where the feds turned up Harris’ stash of explosives and plague, a shoot-out occurred between a suspect in a two-year stretch of bank robberies and FBI agents. Peter Langan exchanged gunfire with the authorities until he was slightly wounded and placed under arrest.

Three days earlier Langan’s suspected accomplice in 19 flamboyant bank heists, Richard Guthrie Jr., had surrendered to police after a brief car chase through Cincinnati.

The Midwestern Bank Bandits–as they were known–had taunted the FBI with letters to newspapers, bought getaway cars in the names of agents, dressed in a variety of disguises and spoke with each other in gibberish. Their trademark was to leave behind pipe bombs inside or in front of the banks they hit in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio and Kentucky. The robberies netted at least $ 200,000, none of which has been recovered.

By the time the FBI agents sorted through the evidence recovered from Langan and Guthrie’s safe houses, vans and storage units, they found that the two were not routine bank robbers but a unit of an underground terrorist faction called the Aryan Republican Army.

Like Harris, Guthrie and Langan are members of Aryan Nations. The men had been in and out of Aryan Nations’ headquarters in Hayden Lake, Idaho since the Eighties. In July 1995 Langan and Guthrie took time from their fund-raising to attend Aryan Nations’ annual world congress.

Hours after Guthrie was processed into the jail in Covington, Kentucky, he tapped an inmate who was being released and gave him a Pennsylvania phone number. Guthrie said to call the number and deliver this message: “The Ohio connection is dead.” After police learned of the call, they found that the phone number belonged to a major Aryan Nations leader and Identity minister.

The searches of storage units, safe houses and vehicles linked to Guthrie and Langan netted explosives, weapons, pipe bombs, phony U.S. Marshal IDs, and jackets and caps marked FBI–all of which are believed to have been used in the bank robberies. The feds also found a copy of Mein Kampf and stacks of white supremacist screeds from Aryan Nations.

But the most startling discovery was a recruitment video for the ARA hosted by a masked Peter Langan, who identifies himself as Commander Pedro. In the course of the two-hour production, stacks of money are piled up on a table before Commander Pedro, who enjoins white viewers to take action against the government. He holds up “essential reading” for potential ARA cadres, including neo-Nazi William Pierce’s race-war fiction The Turner Diaries and Richard Kelly Hoskins’ Vigilantes of Christendom, which includes a recap of the underground terrorist movement known as the Phineas Priesthood.

Included among those linked to the Phineas Priesthood are the assassin of Medgar Evers (Byron de la Beckwith) and Paul Hill, the killer of an abortion doctor and his escort. In Hoskins’ book, he cites as Phineas heroes the two killers of Denver talk-show host Alan Berg.

Four years ago, two men were convicted of an Oklahoma bank robbery. One of the men told the Tulsa Tribune he had used the stolen money to support the Phineas Priesthood in Oklahoma before being captured after a gun battle with police.

This past year on April Fools’ Day at 2:30 in the afternoon, ten weeks after law enforcement busted Guthrie and Langan, a custom van pulled up behind a suburban office of the Spokane, Washington Spokesman-Review. The van’s driver wore a ski mask and camouflage. A passenger, a younger man wearing a ski mask, hopped out from the van and dropped a foot-long pipe bomb at the newspaper’s back door. The resulting detonation smashed into the building, showering the parking lot with shards of glass and steel.

As police and emergency units responded to the scene, two masked men were entering a Spokane Valley bank not far from the smoldering Spokesman-Review office. They pulled out their weapons and relieved the tellers of nearly $ 100,000. They then dropped another length of galvanized pipe to the lobby floor and ran before the bomb exploded. The resulting blast took out the front of the bank.

At the first bomb site, police found copies of the computer printout scattered at the scene.

To: the leaders and rulers of nations and people; all kindreds, nations, peoples and tongues; the sheep of his flock, who hear his voice, his remnant, wherever you may be: Greetings: Thus says Yahweh, Behold I will raise up against Babylon, and against them that dwell in the midst of them that rise up against me, a destroying wind….

Three months later, in July, another bank robbery and a bombing of a Spokane Planned Parenthood clinic were linked by the FBI to groups with ties to Christian Identity–and to the Phineas Priesthood. FBI agents were struck by the similarity to the April Fools’ Day bombing.

Get to know this.

It is the voice of America’s jihad. Consider the foreword to Hoskins’ Vigilantes of Christendom: “As the kamikaze is to the Japanese, as the Shiite is to Islam, as the Zionist is to the Jew, so the Phineas priest is to Christendom.” On the Aryan Republican Army video its face is disguised. It appears wearing a begoggled, rubberized gas mask and a white biochemical  protective suit. This eerie apparition is a homemade angel of the apocalypse bringing to mind words from the Phineas Priesthood’s April declaration:

And after these things I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power. And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. Shall her plagues come in one day, death and mourning, and famine, and she shall be utterly burned with fire.

A year ago, right after Thanksgiving, the following message appeared on an Internet newsgroup where paramilitary extremists, white supremacists, militiamen and would-be terrorists gather:

The smart boys who have hidden in the crowd will be walking around on the busy street looking harmless–while setting fires, planting bombs, creating sabotage, dispersing poisons.

There is a terrorist war going on in this country. It is not hypothetical and it is not symbolic. It is as obvious as more than two tons of explosives going off in Oklahoma City and as silent as a quarter pound of biotoxin riding on the seat of a rental truck. It is as real as the bombs exploding at abortion clinics and newspaper offices. Its grim clues can be found on recruitment videos and on Internet newsgroups. Do not be fooled by the ties to obscure religious sects or alien racist groups. The tools of terror have become ever more accessible and lethal.

There are vipers in the grass. And they are poised to strike.