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Great WMD failures: Casey, the castor oil killer
'Terrorism Lite' makes US Homeland Security stats anyway
Chemical Alley Be now assured that America is safe from a drug addict trying to make a weapon of mass destruction from castor oil, a laxative. This comes by way of the example of Casey Cutler, a drug addict from Mesa, Arizona, who wound up in the Department of Justice's 2006 count of WMD terror cases broken up by the government. It was reprinted in "Congress's Vigilance in the Five Years Since 9/11: Making America Safer," a propaganda sheet issued by Senator John Kyl on August 6, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, in anticipation of the five year rehash and memorial.
Of the six WMD terror cases listed, none includes Islamic terrorists. And of these, five of the perps are white Americans, with three party to only one incident, one in which William Krar, a tax protestor, was found to have collected a shed full of chemicals - specifically material to make a cyanide bomb, ammo and a collection of US neo-Nazi survivalist literature on how to bring down government tyrants, the Pope, and neighbors not of your own skin color through use of lots of armaments (further information).
The other two members, Judith Bruey, Krar's wife, and Edward Feltus, a member of the "New Jersey Militia," are deceptively counted as separate WMD cases. But the biggest travesty is the story of Casey Cutler, an addled young man caught by very bad luck and drug use gone wrong, pathetically trying to make ricin from an intestinal lubricant.
As GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow, I chatted with Jon Sands, Cutler's federal public defender at the beginning of summer. He laughed dryly and described the case as "terrorism lite" before sending over the files on the case (Casey Cutler plea agreement).
Cutler, according to Sands, suffered from a variety of mental problems and had been "self-medicating" with marijuana and other drugs which he purchased from bad elements, the kind apparently quick to teach you a physical lesson should you renege on payment.
Cutler was subsequently rolled by his suppliers on April 28 of 2005, causing him to hatch a self-defense plan, one in which he would use ricin to poison his tormentors should they return. He would offer it as free drugs.
Cutler downloaded the usual Internet recipe for ricin - it's simply to grind castor seeds and wash the weight in powder with four times the weight in acetone - and found he had no idea how to get the beans. So he went to a store and bought castor oil, which - of course - contains no ricin.
No worries, Cutler boiled down the castor oil "to reduce it and utilized acetone (as indicated by the recipe) to extract the ricin from the mixture," reads the finding of fact in his federal plea agreement with the US. But since castor oil contains no ricin, the federal court document is stuck, finding it awkward to admit that the defendant could not possibly have had the toxin. Instead it reads, "Defendant Casey Cutler did something that was a substantial step toward the production of a biological toxin."
If this bit of biochemical bumbling by Cutler and the court isn't quite absurd enough, there is more, and it stems from how one very ill-thought out plan accidentally activated the federal anti-terror response.
Cutler, unfortunately, had a roommate just as easily confused as he. The man contracted bronchitis - "flu like symptoms" according to an FBI agent's report - but because he knew of Cutler's intent, thought he had been poisoned, and went to a local emergency room for treatment.
According to Sands, while local medical personnel were not overly concerned that ricin poisoning was afoot rather than bronchitis, once the word ricin was uttered, it had to be reported to the federal network. When that happens, an array of responses is tripped, including the summoning of a Phoenix SWAT team, and WMD units from the Arizona National Guard and the FBI.
In the first week of June 2005, a SWAT team reconnoitered Cutler's Mesa apartment by interviewing a neighbor who reported that either he or his roommate "practiced throwing knives against the wall at all hours of the night." The team found no one home. The weapons of mass destruction unit entered in full plastic suits with radiation counters at the ready.
Among the materials seized - a bag of pinto beans, a bottle of castor oil from Albertson's, Red Devil lye drain opener (because some of the Internet ricin recipes* call for it, even though it destroys the ricin protein), and "a mirror with powder on the bathroom vanity counter."
Vials to be worn around the neck like lockets were also seized, one containing a "dark plant-like residue" which tested positive for ricin at the state's lab. This was, according to Sands, most probably remainders from Cutler's marijuana stash.
This bad result was produced by a time-resolved immunofluorescence (TRF) assay for ricin, a test that is used nationally in the response network, but which has a history of false positives.
While Sands said it took the FBI little time to determine in interview that Cutler did not have ricin, it took another four days for Arizona to send the sample out of state and get a negative on the presumed marijuana leftovers.
Sands was satisfied that justice had been served in his client's case. Cutler's conviction for attempted production of ricin had been adjusted downward to three years and he'd been awarded credit for time served. Upon release it was recommended Cutler be placed in a mental health institution for treatment that was sorely needed.
Cutler's sentence "was mitigated by his assistance to authorities... [and] the fact that he was utilizing a recipe that would never have produced ricin and that his intent was to make ricin for personal protection only," read a statement from the Office of the United States Attorney, District of Arizona.
Perhaps so. But do you think many are interested in the fine print when perusing the US government's brag book on successful interruptions of WMD plots, the kind used to make the argument you're being vigorously defended in the war on terror? And why should Casey Cutler be a part of that?
* Editor's note: Despite the pointlessness of ricin as a terror weapon, and the uselessness of the recipes for ricin you get on the Internet, we feel sure that they will nevertheless continue to figure in terror trials of losers. So, erm, in order to avoid accusations of publishing information that is likely to prove useful to terrorists... Attention Terrorists! These recipes are not useful, they are useless, and will merely result in your spending fruitless hours making an unpalatable and not-very-poisonous mess of the kitchen. Followed by fruitless years in Belmarsh. So get a life, not life. There, Mr Reid, will that do? ®
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 neighborhood hardware stores.