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The American way of bioterror - an A-Z of ricin crackpots

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Ken Olsen of Spokane, Washington, researched ricin purification on the net and was sent to prison for fourteen years after being fired from Agilent Technologies for doing it from a company computer and storing the resulting castor powder at his desk.

Casey Cutler, from Mesa, AZ, was a drug addict who tried to make ricin from castor oil to defend himself from suppliers who had beaten him. While one cannot get ricin from castor oil, he was still convicted for taking what the court deemed a substantial step toward making a biological weapon. Lesson: In the US, it's illegal to use castor oil for anything other than its recommended purpose as an intestinal cleanser.

Stephen Ekberg, of Marion County, Florida, was an unsuccessful twentysomething living at home with his mother and, like Bergendorff, a castor seeds putterer. He showed someone a box of his poisons, was reported to the FBI and given 22 months for possession of ricin.

Survivalist Denys Ray Hughes lived between Phoenix, Arizona and a cabin in Wisconsin. After a traffic stop in Kansas, the ATF investigated his properties finding castor plants, castor seeds, plans on how to build a bunker, assorted guns and silencers, gunpowder, fuses and ricin recipes. Hughes was sent over for seven years on counts of attempted production of a biological toxin, possession of an unregistered destructive device and possession of an unregistered silencer.

Lesbians Astrid Tepatti and Ebony Woods of Imperial County, California, engaged in a plot to kill the former's husband. They hired a hit man for $10,000 to stab him to death. The attempt failed. Tepatti also attempted to shoot her ex-husband while he slept on the sofa with a gun equipped with homemade silencer made from a potato. She missed. Both drugged him with Valium and tranquilizers. He was made sleepy. And they were found with a recipe for ricin, downloaded from a white supremacist site, and a bag of powder which was allegedly the toxin. They lodged a plea agreement of guilty to attempted murder in 2004 but were not charged on possession of ricin.

In September of 2006, Steven and Kimberly Edwards of Jackson, Mississippi, were indicted on charges of attempting to make ricin from castor seeds in a plot to kill the parents of the latter for inheritance money. Although Kimberly Edwards was said to have a Ph.D. in chemistry, the two still downloaded an Internet ricin recipe. In jail since 2006, sentencing is pending.

Shunned by terrorists, loved by crackpots

American ricin crackpots are a breed distinct from Islamic terrorists. Jihadis and al Qaeda appear to have moved away from attempting to purify ricin in the years past 9/11 in favor of more practical bomb making using unsecured ammunition in Iraq, and TATP. In 2004, the Iraq Survey Group reported that a group called the Al Abud network had dabbled in making castor cake for the purpose of purifying ricin further. The network was broken up by US forces and the CIA deemed it incapable of producing a mass casualty, attack although it might have eventually produced enough ricin to produce "a few isolated casualties." Desultory chemical bomb attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq using chlorine since then were largely fruitless.

The problem, as it exists in the US, is one that hinges upon the perception of ricin as an easy to use weapon. However, in order to pose a greater threat than has been seen in criminal cases, ricin must be purified to a greater extent than can be done using common ricin recipes. Since it is a protein which can be degraded in gross mixtures containing, it and standard criminal procedure does nothing but change the condition of the castor seed to a dried mash, this state of affairs is not likely to change for the future. But it cannot be ruled out that an exceptional person, someone with sophisticated experience in protein chemistry and modest but just right material resources, might turn renegade and try their hand at it for the purpose of assassination.

The mainstream media is not good at communicating the fine points, focusing instead on how easy it is to to get castor seeds and grind them into powder. It is too often assumed that this is all that is necessary to have a WMD. Reporters and many experts simply rely on the small but repetitively published quantity of ricin thought needed to cause death (theoretically 500 micrograms, perfectly administered with no loss). This a figure for a pure dose, and samples of which have never existed in American criminal cases.

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