By Alan Sverdlik
GAINESVILLE, Ga (Reuters) - A federal magistrate judge refused to grant bail on Wednesday to four retired Georgia men jailed on charges linked to an alleged plot to bomb government buildings and spread a lethal biological toxin along major U.S. highways.
Ruling from the bench, U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Cole said "there was too much evidence that the defendants posed a danger to their communities" to free them while they await trial.
Samuel J. Crump, 68, and Ray H. Adams, 65, are charged with conspiring and attempting to produce the biological toxin ricin, which can be fatal if ingested or inhaled. They could receive life sentences if convicted.
Frederick Thomas, 73, and Emory Dan Roberts, 67, are charged with conspiring to possess an unregistered explosive device and possession of an unregistered silencer, and face a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
All four men, who are accused of being part of a fringe domestic militia group, have pleaded not guilty to the charges. Defense attorneys said they would appeal Cole's ruling.
The judge's decision came after nearly three days of testimony, argument and the playing of excerpts from conversations secretly recorded by an informant.
Federal prosecutors say the men had plans to carry out attacks against federal buildings and employees.
A raid of Crump's sister's home, where he was living, turned up castor beans, which had been removed from their husks, the first step in ricin extraction, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert McBurney.
FBI agents confiscated 52 weapons and 30,000 rounds of ammunition after searching Thomas's home, McBurney said.
Defense attorneys described their clients as weak and infirm and incapable of carrying out the alleged plans. They said the men were prone to exaggeration and bravado.
"If this is a terrorist organization, it's the worst terrorist organization in the world," said Jeff Ertel, Thomas's court-appointed lawyer.
The defense lawyers attacked the motives and credibility of the informant, who faces child molestation and child pornography charges in South Carolina.
Prosecutors denied offering the informant leniency if he brought them damaging evidence against the targets of a year-long probe.
After his arrest, the informant contacted federal authorities, saying he had information about illegal activities by Georgia militias, said Doug Korneski, supervisor of the FBI's domestic terrorism division in Atlanta. Korneski said the FBI eventually narrowed its focus to the foursome.
Family members and friends of the defendants argued the men did not pose a threat.
Larry Borders, who said he had been a friend of Roberts for nearly 50 years and served with him in Vietnam, testified that his friend "was just a nice, quiet, polite guy" and vowed to put up the deed to his home to guarantee Roberts's appearance at trial.
McBurney said during a court recess that the case was still under investigation and would not rule out seeking another indictment that would supersede the one returned by a federal grand jury earlier this month.
"We're continuing to look at a lot of things," McBurney said.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)