The three men charged with attempting to bomb chemical storage tanks in Norfolk came up with their $2.7 million plan to defraud an insurance company before the start of the Persian Gulf War and did not try to disguise the bombing as a terrorist action, law enforcement officials said yesterday.

"They literally had nothing to do with the war. It wasn't even planned to take advantage of the war hysteria," said one official. "It was purely coincidental."

Federal officials arrested an Ellicott City man, Charles Edward Gresham, 57, Saturday morning. One of the storage tanks where pipe bombs were found was being rented by Gresham and was filled with sodium hydrosulfide, a caustic chemical used in mining and tanning.

Gresham is charged along with two Arizona men with conspiring to use explosive devices to commit arson, mail fraud and wire fraud. On Friday, the Arizona men, Joseph Wayne Openshaw, of St. Johns, and Cecil Howard Ross, of Glendale, were taken into custody.

A bond hearing for Gresham is scheduled for today. A hearing for the Arizonans will be held today in Phoenix.

Law enforcement officials said yesterday that the three were arrested earlier than had been planned. Agents of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had hoped to videotape a sting of Gresham but canceled it after CBS News reported that the FBI was conducting a fraud investigation.

It could not be determined yesterday whether the three men are accused of personally placing the pipe bombs found attached to storage tanks containing methanol and sodium hydrosulfide or whether other people were involved.

It also was not clear how the would-be bombers gained access to the storage tanks, which are fenced off and guarded. An official at the storage facility in Norfolk said that there was no sign of forced entry to the storage depot, but that someone could have entered the property from the water.

Law enforcement officials yesterday described Gresham as being in desperate financial straits, unable to dispose of the sodium hydrosulfide that he had obtained from an unidentified company and unable to meet the storage tank rental fees. An FBI affidavit filed in support of the arrests said that a civil suit against Gresham was to have been filed on Feb. 4, the day the bombs were discovered.

Gresham had been active in the Baltimore-area academic community for more than a decade. From 1972 to 1982, he was a vice president at the University of Baltimore, then a young and growing institution. He was responsible for alumni affairs and fund-raising, university officials said.

L. Wayne Markert, now dean of the university's college of liberal arts, said he knew Gresham about a decade ago, when Markert was a faculty member, but noted that he had "very little interaction" with Gresham. Markert said Gresham appeared to be a responsible official. "He seemed fine," said Markert, who added that he was surprised to hear of Gresham's arrest.

University spokeswoman Katie Ryan said she could not determine whether Gresham had pursued personal business interests while employed by the university.

Ryan said Gresham had received a degree from Baltimore and had become a professor in its business school before becoming a vice president. The business school and the university "have changed dramatically" since that time, Ryan added.

In the early 1980s, a man named Gresham taught at the business school at Towson State University in Towson, Md., although university spokesman Dan McCarthy said yesterday he could not confirm whether it was the Gresham who was arrested Saturday.

The professor was at Towson State "for a short time" and "has not been at Towson State for at least seven years," McCarthy said.