Late Wednesday afternoon, the FBI arrested a Mississippi man accused of sending ricin-laced letters to Barack Obama and Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and possibly other government officials. The arrest was a relief to anxious members of Congress and staffers, surely mindful of the five deaths and 17 illnesses that followed the anthrax letters sent to Capitol Hill and several media outlets in September 2001.
But the arrest, which the FBI says is not connected to the Boston Marathon bombings, also spotlights the strange past of a bioweapon that has attracted numerous bumbling would-be domestic terrorists, a rogues’ gallery of antigovernment cranks who in some cases managed to scare people, but mostly just wound up in federal prison.
Among their ranks may now be Paul Kevin Curtis of Corinth, Miss., whom a local newspaper describes as a celebrity impersonator of everyone from Johnny Cash to Prince to Kenny Chesney. He appears to be the same Curtis who claimed, in a comment under this article on an Elvis website, to have gone “undercover” to expose corruption in Elvis impersonation contests. The comment suggests that its author may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer: “Consumer-reports mag published article last year stating Mississippi as the most corrupt state in all 52 states in the U.S. so go figure!” How Curtis might have acquired ricin, and whether his letters contained more than harmless trace elements, isn’t known.
To be clear, ricin is no laughing matter. The toxic compound, which can be extracted from widely available castor beans with relative ease, is lethal in tiny quantities. In a John le Carré–style plotline, a pellet of ricin deployed with a jab from a pointed umbrella tip killed the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in 1978. If ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin, ricin can cause vomiting, bloody urine and seizures, then massive organ failure. It has no antidote.
Hence its appeal to some nasty characters. Saddam Hussein tried to weaponize it in large quantities. Al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate has worked to produce ricin, and the organization’s online English-language Inspire magazine touted the substance to aspiring lone-wolf terrorists in America who “possess basic scientific knowledge.”
There have actually been several domestic ricin plots in recent years, none involving jihadists and most the work of antigovernment radicals. Not that any have come close to executing a successful attack: in late 2011, for example, federal agents arrested four Georgia men with militia ties whose plans included bombmaking and killing government officials with ricin. “This is worse than anthrax,” one of them reportedly boasted. “There ain’t no cure for it either.” The men, all in their 60s and 70s, were busted before they even began brewing the substance, which experts said they likely would have been unable to use on the mass scale of their imagination anyway.
This compilation of ricin-related cases reveals numerous other motley characters caught seeking or trying to use ricin: Denys Ray Hughes, a Phoenix survivalist nabbed trying to manufacture ricin in 2006; James Kenneth Gluck of Tampa, who planned to kill federal judges in 1999 and was found with ricin ingredients, recipes and lab equipment; Debora Green, an oncologist who tried to kill her husband by surreptitiously feeding him mail-ordered castor beans; and four members of the radical antitax Minnesota Patriots Council, nabbed after they ordered a ricin kit by mail from an ad in a militia magazine.
And let’s not forget the peculiar case of Roger von Bergendorff, an unemployed computer-graphic artist found comatose in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2008. Von Bergendorff had apparently inhaled ricin he’d produced himself. Prosecutors later said a vial in his possession held enough ricin to kill hundreds of people, though it was never clear why von Bergendorff had the stuff. (After awaking from his coma he was sentenced to three years in prison.)
One person who has delivered ricin and gotten away with it is someone who goes by the name Fallen Angel. In late 2003 authorities discovered two ricin-laced letters sent by someone using that name, one addressed to the Transportation Department and one to the Bush White House. The letters had a peculiar axe to grind, complaining about pending new regulations on the trucking industry requiring more rest hours for long-haul truckers. “If you change the hours of service on January 4, 2004, I will turn D.C into a ghost town,” warned the author, who described himself as the owner of a tanker-truck fleet company. Fortunately, his ricin was of a relatively nonlethal grade, and no one was sickened. But the FBI still posted a reward of up to $100,000 for him, though he was never caught.
For a moment this week it appeared that Fallen Angel might have returned. The ricin letters to Obama and Wicker were both postmarked in Tennessee, as was Fallen Angel’s letter to the Bush White House. It happens that long-haul regulations are scheduled to tighten this summer. And, bizarrely enough, a Pennsylvania man was arrested outside the White House last week after threatening to detonate a truck bomb there over his anger about — you guessed it — trucking regulations.
It doesn’t appear that Curtis is Fallen Angel. There’s no indication that his letters, both reported to contain the phrase “to see a wrong and not expose it is to become a silent partner to its continuance,” made reference to trucking. Both were signed with his initials. Or, more accurately: “I am KC and I approve this message.”
Say this for Fallen Angel: he was smart enough not to reveal his initials. And in the hapless world of America’s would-be ricin killers, that may pass for genius.