The American way of bioterror - an A-Z of ricin crackpots
Homebrew poison of choice to the hard of thinking
It takes a special kind of American to be fascinated by ricin, and last week the latest, Roger Von Bergendorff, was indicted in the District Court of Nevada. Bergendorff possibly qualifies for an award in failed Darwinism, being the only person in recent times to have seemingly accidentally poisoned himself with the protein toxin, but not quite effectively enough for the FBI to have nothing to do except attend his funeral.
The US government's complaint against Bergendorff, filed on April 15 paints a common picture: loser dude on the fringes of society, indigent but with still enough money to have two unregistered guns with silencers, castor seeds, a standard collection of anarchist poisons literature and castor powder - or "crude" ricin as the FBI puts it.
Bergendorff told the FBI his production of ricin was an "exotic idea." He'd been puttering away at powdering castor seeds as something of a hobby since 2005 while living in poverty in Utah and Nevada. He'd pounded them in the basement of a cousin (who has also been charged in connection with the case) and, most recently, possibly in an Extended Stay America hotel room in Las Vegas. He professed to love animals, but his beloved dog had to be euthanized due to irreversible neglect when Bergendorff apparently poisoned himself, was hospitalized, lapsed into a coma and his hotel room searched.
Bergendorff had "researched" the Internet for his ricin recipe, downloading the Anarchist's Cookbook. He babbled his method to the FBI, which duly reported he had conducted "a series of 'mashings' of the castor seeds with acetone and drying out the mash to remove the oil." While Bergendorff admitted to doing this, he professed to not always remember precisely where he'd done the work or if he'd performed it on castor seeds bought from a garden shop, the receipt for which the FBI recovered in its searches. "Bergendorff admitted [that there had been people] who made him mad over the years and he had thoughts about causing them harm to the point of making some plans but he maintained he had never acted on those thoughts or plans," reads the indictment.
Readers may notice a trend.
Not your average psychotic killer
The ricin perps of the past few years are not the Hollywood picture of evil. There is no Anton Chigurh - the psychopathic assassin who storms through Texas in the movie "No Country for Old Men" armed with a sniper rifle and a pneumatic hand-held piston for smashing skulls - among them. They're a gallery of weirdoes, some of them dangerous in an inept manner, but generally more hazardous to themselves. Not to put too fine a point on it, they're damaged goods, and one can say from experience that, contrary to Bergendorff's hazy assertion, making ricin from castor seeds is not an "exotic idea" but a tiresome one. It's common and banal, attractive only to lonely nuts, obsessed self-styled outdoorsmen, stupid as well as crazy gun collectors and incompetent criminals. Since 9/11, every complaint involving ricin has received national recognition, averaging a couple incidents a year. No fatalities have resulted.
If one reviews recent cases, the American perp list backs up the low-rent, often unintentionally comical, character of what can be dubbed a bona fide collection of distinctly American ricin crackpots.
Since 2004, US criminals implicated in ricin cases:
Robert Alberg, from Kirkland, Washington, a man suffering from Asperger's and in need of institutional care. Alberg allegedly produced ricin in his apartment after purchasing five pounds of castor seeds from a nursery, which reported him to the FBI.
Michael Crooker, a Massachusetts man now serving time as a convicted felon, was arrested by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 2004 for sale of an air rifle equipped with a silencer. Castor seeds and rosary peas - which contain ricin's cousin, abrin, were found in his apartment. He is famously known for suing Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, the latter for furnishing a cryptological program which apparently did not properly work for him, exposing him to embarrassment. As of January, Crooker faces a host of charges stemming from evidence collected in 2004. The charges include possession of toxins for use as weapons, threatening to transfer the toxins to another in order to launch an attack on a federal building, threatening to use a WMD, possession of a toxin by a restricted person and possession of toxin of a type not justified by research or any other peaceful purpose. If convicted, Crooker faces various outcomes which include life imprisonment if convicted on threatening to use a WMD and ten years for possession of biological toxins.
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.
So in America there is an odd position, one in which castor plants in the garden and on the stoop are entirely legitimate while the collection and mashing of the seeds of them immediately exposes the typical ricin putterer to a substantial criminal charge. In Bergendorff's case, the ricin crackpot can also bring down family members. It's a crime to know of and not report the production of ricin when the government comes inquiring. It charged Bergendorff's cousin, Thomas Tholen, for not informing authorities what he properly knew of Bergendorff powdering castor in the basement.
A long time ago castor seed agriculture was a noticeable renewable resource in the US. Castor pomace was an organic fertilizer, one used quite a bit until pushed aside by more modern sources of nitrogen from the chemical industry. And in 2008, some have seriously suggested enhancing the cultivation of castor plants for the production of biodiesel.
But the common modern view is one in which castor, outside of intestinal purgative, has no perceived purpose in the United States except as justification for the inspiration of bioterror fear and funding for the development of ricin vaccines nobody thought were necessary prior to 9/11. Paradoxically, poison tinkering Roger Von Bergendorff is the only person in the country who could have benefited from a ricin immunization.
A self-defeating and nihilistic interest exists in the poison, as if every red-blooded, disappointed and frustrated American kook has a defiant right to possess a recipe on their hard disk and a packet of castor seeds nearby, perhaps next to an unregistered handgun equipped with a silencer made out of a vegetable. This ensures a constant trickle of criminal apprehensions and prosecutions, a process the government handles efficiently, depositing ricin crackpots where they belong. Bergendorff, like everyone else before him, is headed for prison for an indefinite period, a just sentence when considering that, unintentionally or not, the ricin crackpot's major contribution is to frighten the locals when the gendarmes and hazmat teams descend on the neighborhood. ®
George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.