ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Radiation scientists say the portable X-ray weapon two upstate New York men are accused of trying to build to secretly sicken Muslims and enemies of Israel isn't feasible.
An indictment unsealed this week charges 49-year-old Glendon Scott Crawford and 54-year-old Eric J. Feight with conspiracy to support terrorism. Authorities allege they built a remote-control switch they planned to attach to a truck-mounted, industrial X-ray machine to secretly radiate people who would get sick or die days later.
However, radiation safety experts at the University of Rochester and University of New Mexico said victims would have to face prolonged exposure from radiation at close range.
"There is no instant death ray. ... It's not feasible. It's the stuff of comic books," said Dr. Frederic Mis, radiation safety officer at the University of Rochester Medical Center, after reading the criminal complaint describing their alleged plan. "That's going to be the interesting thing for the court to face because their designs would not have worked."
Mis said prolonged X-ray exposure does kill tissue, with skin ulcerations appearing from a week to months later. "What we worry about in radiology primarily is skin damage," he said.
For safety, they advise staff to limit entering or performing diagnostics in an X-ray area, Mis said. There are accounts of Russians fatally injecting or feeding radiation to victims, and even planting it in a chair a victim repeatedly sat in, he said, noting the possibility the designers here could have hurt themselves or accidentally someone else.
"What if they find someone sleeping on a park bench? What if they backed up the van, opened the door, and turned the device on for eight hours?" Mis said. "Even these guys might stumble upon somebody and hurt somebody."
Dr. Fred Mettler, former chairman of the Department of Radiology at the University of New Mexico, was unfamiliar with the specifics of Crawford's plans but said it's unlikely such a device could work. Radiation can be narrowly beamed, as it is in some cancer treatments, but the accelerators require huge amounts of electricity, are not easily portable and any target would have to remain still for a long time, he said.
"I don't know of any of these that you can use like a gun to aim at someone on the street," said Mettler, also U.S. representative on the United Nations' Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation,
Crawford and Feight face detention hearings Thursday. Prosecutors want them held until trial, saying they might flee and still pose a danger to the community. Court-appointed defense attorneys have declined to comment.
The investigation by the FBI in Albany and police agencies began in April 2012 after authorities received information that Crawford had approached local Jewish organizations to help fund a weapon to use against enemies of Israel, authorities said.
Crawford, an industrial mechanic for General Electric in Schenectady, knew Feight, an outside GE contractor with mechanical and engineering skills, through work, they said. Feight designed, built and tested the remote control, which they planned to use to operate an industrial X-ray system mounted on a truck.
Underdcofer investigators gave Feight $1,000 to build the control device and showed the men pictures of industrial X-ray machines they said they could obtain. They planned to provide access to an actual X-ray system to assembly with the remote control Tuesday, the day they were arrested.
Associated Press writer Rik Stevens in Albany contributed to this report.