Disease-Causing Bacteria Found in Biofem Probe

By Jack Leonard © 2000  Los Angeles Times Staff Writer 4/30/00

     Preliminary tests on substances removed from the Irvine home of biomedical researcher Dr. Larry C. Ford found germs that cause cholera as well as salmonella, according to law enforcement sources.

     The FBI is now trying to determine why the doctor kept the potentially dangerous bacteria in the house and whether they were related to his medical research with Biofem Inc. or somehow linked to his involvement with the South African military's biological weapons program, the sources said.

     Cholera is a highly contagious intestinal disease that causes severe diarrhea and dehydration and can be fatal if not promptly treated. Salmonella is a leading cause of food poisoning and in rare cases can be fatal.

     Officials are exploring whether the germs, found among dozens of jars taken from Ford's refrigerator and garage last month during a forced evacuation of his neighborhood, posed any health risks and how the gynecologist came to posses them, the sources said.

     Officials are unsure whether Ford, who committed suicide last month, violated any laws in his storage or use of the bacteria.

     The germs, along with other unidentified substances taken from the home, are being tested by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC officials on Saturday declined comment.

     The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the salmonella and cholera germs appeared to have been stored for some time, possibly years; the preliminary tests found that some of the germs were dead.

     Both bacteria can be obtained from hospital labs and, if stored properly, can be used as part of legitimate research in a laboratory setting, according to Dr. Kenneth Litwack, an associate professor at UC Irvine.

     Litwack said he knew of no laws preventing researchers from storing the bacteria, though he wasn't familiar with the laws governing its use. The safest way to store the germs is in a freezer, said Litwack, an infectious disease specialist.

     The findings mark another twist in the byzantine murder plot targeting Ford's business partner. The chain of events began Feb. 28, when a masked gunman shot and wounded Biofem CEO James Patrick Riley. Within days, police searched Ford's home in connection with the botched assassination attempt. On March 2, Ford shot and killed himself.

     Local authorities then evacuated more than 200 Irvine residents as police dug up a cache of illegal weapons and explosives from Ford's Woodbridge neighborhood home.

     Hazardous materials teams also removed from Ford's refrigerator and garage dozens of "suspicious materials" they believed might be hazardous. Ford and Riley were developing a female contraceptive that Biofem literature touted was capable of killing pathogens. The two were also working on a bacteria treatment that would protect against certain stomach upsets.

     But company attorney Raymond Lee said Saturday that he believed Biofem's work never involved using cholera or salmonella. The company research is contracted out and none of the firm's work would have been stored at Ford's home, he said.

     "There was nothing that was harmful at all," Lee said Saturday of Biofem's research. "None of it is being done here anyway. It's all being tested off-site. . . . Whatever he had at home was just his."

     The law enforcement sources said the germs found in Ford's home have prompted officials to look more closely at the doctor's work as an advisor to South Africa's apartheid-era government on biochemical warfare.

     While the extent of Ford's relationship with the South African government remains unclear, the former surgeon general of the South African Defense Force said the Irvine biomedical researcher served as an "informal consultant" and provided advice on protecting military personnel against biological attacks. Others have said Ford played a greater role in the offensive use of such weapons.

     Salmonella was used in the most significant germ-warfare attack in U.S. history. In 1984, members of the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon sprayed a salad bar with the bacterium in an effort to keep people from voting in a local election. The attack gave diarrhea to 751 people.

     Vibrio cholerae, the bacteria that causes cholera, is cited along with anthrax and botulism by the CDC as biological agents that could be used in a terrorist attack.

     Both salmonella and cholera--the latter in particular--have caused major health problems in Africa and South America, where access to antibiotics is limited. But the bacteria rarely cause serious health problems in the United States and Europe, where the drugs are much more commonly available.

     Investigators have released few details about their probe into the Biofem case. Irvine police are investigating the attempted murder of Riley, while the FBI has opened up a "weapons of mass destruction" case into the substances found at Ford's home.

     Spokespeople from both agencies declined comment Saturday on the new developments.