By Scott Stewart
In three recent cases, at least 11 letters containing the toxin ricin were sent across the United States via the U.S. postal system. Nobody was injured as a result of these mailings, largely because of the nature of ricin and its limitations as a weapon. Indeed, in two of the three incidents, the sender of the letters never really intended to assassinate the addressees of the letters, but sought to use the letters to frame someone. Still, these incidents have raised the already high profile of ricin in the media. This heightened awareness combined with the ease of obtaining the materials required to manufacture the toxin will ensure that ricin remains popular with would-be assassins and terrorists, despite its limitations. Because of this popularity, and since we haven't written about ricin for several years now, it seems a good time to revisit the topic.
On June 7, Shannon Guess Richardson was arrested and charged with sending ricin-laced letters to U.S. President Barack Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun control advocacy group. Richardson approached the FBI in Shreveport, Louisiana, on May 30 to report that she suspected her husband, Nathan Richardson, had sent the letters. However, upon further investigation, Shannon Richardson evidenced deception during a polygraph examination, and investigators determined that she had attempted to frame her husband. She was arrested and charged with sending the letters.
The Richardson case was eerily similar to an April 2013 case in which James Everett Dutschke, a Tupelo, Mississippi, martial arts instructor, was arrested after he allegedly attempted to frame a rival by sending ricin-laced letters to President Obama, Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker and a Mississippi judge. In that case, the target of the framing, Paul Kevin Curtis, was arrested on April 17 and incarcerated for six days before investigators determined that he was innocent and had been set up. Dutschke was arrested on April 27, and a federal grand jury in Jackson, Mississippi, indicted him on five counts, the details of which were released to the public June 3.
The criminal complaint filed by the FBI in the Richardson case noted that Richardson had conducted Internet searches on the Dutschke case. Therefore, the similarities between the two cases are likely because Richardson was a copycat inspired by the Dutschke case. The FBI also noted in the complaint that Shannon Richardson searched for instructions for making ricin on the Internet and then ordered the ingredients to manufacture the toxin online in her husband's name.
In the third case, Matthew Ryan Buquet of Spokane, Washington, has been charged in a one-count grand jury indictment for mailing threatening communication in connection with five ricin-laced letters he allegedly mailed from Spokane on May 13. The letters were addressed to President Obama, the CIA, a federal district court judge in Spokane, Fairchild Air Force Base and a post office in Spokane. In an interview, Buquet admitted to sending a ricin letter to the CIA, but it had been lost in the mail system due to an incorrect address and was only located on June 10.
Ricin has long been a fairly popular toxin in discussions among anti-government militia members, jihadists and anarchists. Recipes for manufacturing ricin have been published in jihadist manuals and anarchist cookbooks, and are widely available on the Internet, as evidenced by the Richardson case. One of the principal reasons for the popularity of ricin over other toxins and chemical weapons is that it can be manufactured from readily available castor beans. The plant that produces castor beans, Ricinus communis, is a widely used ornamental shrub found in many suburban yards.
The toxin is actually a byproduct of the process used to extract castor oil from castor beans. Castor oil is used in the manufacture of foods, soaps, various lubricants and things like hydraulic and brake fluid. Castor oil was also an old-fashioned cure-all widely disliked by generations of children. It is not only easy to obtain castor beans, but also fairly simple to extract low-grade ricin from beans that are purchased as seeds, or from beans that grow on ornamental shrubs.
As a toxin, ricin's target is a part of the cell called the ribosome. The primary role of the ribosome is to produce proteins, which is essential to the survival of the cell. Inactivation of ribosomes can lead to cell death, which in turn can lead to organ failure. The toxin is frequently encountered in a powder or paste form, but it also can be suspended in liquids. Touching ricin can cause a rash, but skin contact is rarely fatal unless it enters the bloodstream through a cut. Ricin is far more dangerous when it is ingested, inhaled or injected into the blood stream. When ingested, ricin can cause vomiting, bloody diarrhea, dehydration, a drop in blood pressure, organ failure and death. When inhaled, ricin causes respiratory distress and can lead to a buildup of fluid in the lungs, a drop in blood pressure, respiratory failure and death. Injection is the most dangerous method of ricin poisoning, given that a dose of highly purified ricin as small as 500 micrograms — about the size of the head of a pin — is sufficient to begin shutting down cellular and organ functions. There is no cure for ricin poisoning. Treatment focuses on addressing the symptoms and, if possible, flushing the ricin out of the system.
Due to the potency of ricin as a toxin — and the ease with which it can be manufactured relative to other biological toxins and chemical weapons — ricin is often cited as an ideal terrorist weapon. However, as seen by the recent letters, it is difficult to fashion crude ricin into an efficient weapon — especially one capable of conducting a mass casualty attack. First, it is very difficult to purify and aerosolize ricin powder into a form that is readily dispersed and inhaled. It is also hard to administer ricin orally to a large number of victims. Mass injection is also difficult, although some terrorist manuals have discussed the possibility of coating bomb shrapnel in ricin, or loading it into hollow-point bullets.
A History of Successes and Failures
Ricin has been known for a long time, and several militaries conducted research in the 1900s in an effort to weaponize the toxin for use in chemical and biological warfare programs, but nation-states were never able to transform ricin into a weapon that could be effectively and reliably deployed on the battlefield. Ricin's limitations led weapons programs to abandon it in favor of more readily weaponizable chemicals and toxins. It is unlikely that a terrorist organization or lone wolf operative would have any more luck transforming ricin into a weapon of mass destruction.
While ricin never made a good battlefield weapon, the Soviet weapons program did provide the toxin to the KGB for use as a low-profile assassination weapon. Perhaps the most notorious ricin attack occurred in London in 1978, when Bulgarian writer and dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated using a small pellet of ricin injected into his leg by the tip of a modified umbrella. In 1981, Soviet agents are suspected of attempting to assassinate Boris Korczak, a Polish-born CIA officer who had penetrated the KGB, with an unknown weapon that fired a ricin pellet into him in Vienna, Virginia. Korczak became very ill as a result of the attack, but survived.
In the United States, ricin has been used in attempted and successful criminal assassinations and in suicides (including a suicide in Las Vegas in 2003). In the 1980s and 1990s, numerous cases came to light in which the suspects were found to have acquired or attempted to acquire ricin for targeted killings of spouses and family members, government and law enforcement officials, or coworkers. In the early 1990s, several members of the Minnesota Patriots Council, a radical anti-taxation group, acquired ricin and were accused of plotting to use it against federal officials. And in 1998, three members of the North American Militia in Michigan who were indicted on weapons and conspiracy charges were found in possession of videotapes explaining the process of extracting ricin from castor beans.
Ricin's effectiveness as a discreet weapon of targeted assassination does raise some concern for highly visible individuals such as political leaders, businesspeople and celebrities. In addition to lacing a meal or drink with the toxin, a hand-held device such as an umbrella, a needle or a modified ring can be used to inject a small pellet of purified ricin into a target, as demonstrated in the Markov case. This could be done in any number of situations, including in a receiving line or while the target is "pressing the flesh" on the campaign trail. In such a situation, the target would likely feel the injection and thus recognize the attacker immediately. So if the attacker is willing to get caught, ricin or other biological or chemical agents can be administered in public while the target interacts with a crowd. However, that said, an attack using a handgun would arguably be easier and likely more effective than an attack with some sort of improvised ricin weapon — especially if the attacker did not have the capability to create highly purified ricin.
In addition to its nature, another important limitation to the use of ricin in an attack using a letter is the improvement in mail-handling procedures and the awareness of mail-handling personnel following the 2001 anthrax letters attacks. The use of gloves, masks and exhaust hoods has served to protect mail-handling personnel. Hoax anthrax letters and parcel and letter bomb attacks have kept mail-screening vigilance high and have ensured that safety procedures continued. Indeed, the ricin letters were all caught by mail-screening procedures and none of them made it to the intended addressee. Procedures for identifying, isolating and handling suspicious parcels such as the ricin letters have helped reduce the panic and disruption such items can produce. Despite the recent rash of ricin letters, there has been no hysteria akin to that which followed the anthrax letters in late 2001 and early 2002.
Given the publicity generated by the recent ricin attacks, the ease of obtaining castor beans and the ease of making crude ricin, the toxin will remain a popular — though limited — weapon.