Ricin case 'still being looked at'

“I’m a fleet owner of a tanker company. I have access to castor pulp. If my demand is dismissed, I’m capable of making ricin.”

It has been nearly 18 months since this message was sent with a vile of ricin to the Department of Transportation (DoT). A similar letter was mailed to the White House, and traces of the deadly substance were found on a mail-opening machine in Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) Dirksen office mailroom.

Despite the fact that no one has been implicated yet in these crimes, experts believe that the person responsible for the ricin attack will be found.

“If you look at the Unabomber case, it took 18 years to solve,” said Clinton Van Zandt, president of Van Zandt Associates Inc., an international threat- and risk-assessment group, and a 25-year-veteran special agent with the FBI. “I think any case can be solved. … All it’s going to do is take someone who knows the individual to come forward.”

Van Zandt, who has not worked on the ricin investigation but whose specialties include criminal profiling, said the individual who sent the ricin letters would be easier to catch than the individuals who sent the anthrax through the mail in 2001.

He explained that the individual who mailed the anthrax-laced letter probably did so for quasi-altruistic purposes, perhaps to warn the public of the danger of biological agents. The ricin sender did not strike him as that kind of intellectual.

“I don’t see this person as a rocket scientist,” he said. “This makes the case more solvable.”

Lee Browning, a researcher and president of Browning Seed Inc., a Texas-based seed company, said, “It can be traced back down through the isotopes. I assure you [the government] can trace it down. … They can even tell what country it came from.”

Browning, who spoke to the FBI about the ricin attack in Washington, said he suspects that the FBI knows where the letters came from and who sent them because of extensive research on the DNA of castor beans, from which ricin is derived.

Ricin is a deadly poison that can be inhaled, injected or ingested. A dose the size of the head of a pin could kill an adult.

Debbie Wireman, a spokeswoman for the Washington bureau of the FBI, said there are currently no updates on the case but “it is still being looked at.”  

The FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the DoT are offering a $120,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the individual who mailed the poisoned letters.

Initially, reports pointed to a member of the trucking industry based on the content of the letters, signed “Fallen Angel,” that threatened to manufacture more of the deadly poison if certain trucking regulations weren’t dropped. The DoT letter was found at a sorting center serving a South Carolina airport. The second letter, postmarked from Chattanooga, was bound for the White House. Neither letter has been linked to the small amount of ricin found in Frist’s office Rick Todd, president of the South Carolina Trucking Association, said FBI inquiries have ceased and the government no longer seems interested.

“We did post a message for a good eights months with information who to call with information,” Todd said, but he added that the message since had taken it down.

Since the attacks, funding has increased for projects that genetically engineer castor beans without ricin. The process “blocks the expression of the ricin gene to make [the plant] safe to grow and process,” said Thomas McKeon, a research chemist for Agricultural Research.

McKeon added that many household items are derived from castor beans, including cosmetics and lithium grease, used to lubricate car engines.