IRVINE — Investigators unearthed six suspicious canisters Thursday from the backyard of Dr. Larry C. Ford's home, as details emerged about the biomedical researcher's possible former links to military and biological weapons programs.
Specifics of Ford's role remain unclear, but in an interview Thursday, the former surgeon general of the South African Defense Force said Ford served as an "informal consultant" and provided advice on protecting military personnel against biological attacks.
Ford is at the center of a probe into the attempted assassination last week of his business partner, John Patrick Riley, chief executive officer of Biofem Inc. Ford committed suicide on March 2, police said, a day after detectives searched his Irvine home in connection with the shooting.
Dr. Neil Knobel, the former South African surgeon general, said that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a government panel in South Africa investigating apartheid-era human rights abuses, asked about Knobel's relationship with Ford during hearings in 1998.
The commission also asked the head of the South African military's covert biological weapons program whether Ford had worked with him, Knobel said, though the panel did not mention the Irvine doctor in any of its final reports.
Knobel said he does not believe Ford played a role in weapons development. But another South African doctor said Ford claimed in 1995 that he had been involved in the research.
The excavation came after detectives were told by a family member that the doctor had a cache of weapons and biological materials.
Police on Thursday found six white plastic cylinders, 10 inches wide and three feet long, beneath a concrete slab.
"We have dug down three feet and haven't reached the other end of the cylinders, which we believe are also capped," said Irvine Police Lt. Sam Allevato. "We don't know what's inside, but we believe they are filled with illegal weapons and hazardous materials."
A robot will remove the containers, which will be X-rayed at the site and then opened at a laboratory.
Another 21 canisters filled with "thousands of rounds" of ammunition, including belted machine gun rounds, were found in Ford's house, Allevato said. No illegal weapons were found in the home.
Police said Ford legally owned a number of rifles and shotguns, and ammunition for those weapons also was found in the home. Hundreds of rifle rounds were discovered under a false floorboard, Allevato said.
It is unclear why Ford had the belted machine gun ammunition, which is illegal for a private owner.
Police closed an elementary school and evacuated 48 families from around Ford's house on Wednesday as a precaution. Police also feared that Ford might have booby-trapped some of the buried containers, but Allevato said no such devices have been found.
The excavation came more than a week after Riley, 58, was shot in the face as he arrived for work at Biofem's Irvine Spectrum offices. Los Angeles businessman Dino D'Saachs, 56, is charged with driving a getaway van. The gunman remains at large.
Until the outbreak of violence, Biofem was a little-noted company through which Ford and Riley sought to market Inner Confidence, a female suppository designed to reduce exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.
Dr. Otto Muller, a South African medical researcher who worked with Ford on trying to get clinical trials of Inner Confidence started there, said Ford told him in 1995 that he was involved in South Africa's military-led program to develop biological weapons.
Federal government sources said Thursday they were aware that Ford had contact with the South African consulate in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Ford's attorney said his client had once done work for the U.S. government on chemical weapons but didn't know specifics.
Times staff writer Jeff Gottlieb, researcher Salma Patel in Johannesburg and correspondent Judy Silber contributed to this story.