JACKSON, Miss. — The key ingredient – castor beans – is easy to find. Crude instructions for extracting the lethal poison in them can be found on the Internet. And it doesn't require a chemistry degree or sophisticated lab equipment.
The FBI is investigating at least three cases over the past month and a half in which ricin was mailed to President Barack Obama and other public figures.
Ricin has been sent to officials sporadically over the years, but experts say that there seems to be a recent uptick and that copycat attacks – made possible by the relative ease of extracting the poison – may be the reason.
"I can absolutely promise you that when these kinds of things happen, we're going to have copycats. We expect them. We prepare for them. And we catch them," said Murray Cohen, founder of the Atlanta-based Frontline Foundation, which trains workers in how to respond to bioterrorism and epidemics.
Security and counterterrorism expert Michael Fagel, who teaches at Northwestern University and is a veteran of ricin investigations, said ricin may be employed because castor beans are so easy to come by.
The plants grow wild along highways and in other spots in the U.S. They are also considered ornamental by some gardeners and are cultivated for medicinal castor oil and other products.
"And you can go on the Internet and find out any one of a gazillion recipes on how to make ricin," Fagel said, adding that it takes only a beginner's knowledge of science to "weaponize" it.
If inhaled, ricin can cause respiratory failure, among other symptoms. If swallowed, it can shut down the liver and other organs, resulting in death. The amount of ricin that can fit on the head of a pin is said to be enough to kill an adult if properly prepared. No antidote is available, though researchers are trying to develop one.
Despite the poison's fearsome reputation, a draft of a 2010 Homeland Security Department handbook lists only one person killed by ricin, and that was a 1978 assassination in London involving injection with a ricin pellet. Someone associated with Bulgaria's secret police used a special umbrella to fire the pellet into a Bulgarian dissident.
The first of the three recent ricin investigations in the U.S. began in April. An Elvis impersonator, Kevin Curtis, was jailed and accused of sending poisoned letters to Obama, a U.S. senator and a Mississippi judge. Then Curtis was suddenly released from jail when the FBI shifted its focus to his longtime foe, James Everett Dutschke. He was charged with making ricin.
The FBI said Dutschke, a former martial arts instructor and unsuccessful candidate for various political offices, bought his castor beans on eBay and may have used a coffee grinder to turn them into a powder from recipes he downloaded on his computer.
Then in May, three poison-tainted letters were mailed from Spokane, Wash., to Obama, a federal judge and a post office. A fourth letter sent to Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane also tested positive for the poison. The FBI is trying to locate a fifth letter it suspects was mailed to the CIA in McLean, Va.
Matthew Ryan Buquet, a 37-year-old janitor and a registered sex offender, was charged last week with mailing a threatening communication. He has pleaded not guilty.
In the most recent case, authorities say ricin-laced letters were sent to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Washington gun control group. Those letters were postmarked from Shreveport, La., but could have been mailed from Arkansas, Louisiana or Texas, officials said.
Cohen said it appears the ricin in all three cases was a crude form that's relatively easy to make. It would require laboratory equipment and scientific knowledge to make a more potent, weapons-grade version, he said.
Soon after the ricin case in Mississippi, the Congressional Research Service wrote a report for Congress that said recipes for ricin are available "on the Internet, from commercial bookstores, in patents and in scientific literature."
"The quality of these directions varies. Some directions would produce only crude preparations, while others would produce nearly pure ricin," the report said.
Thomas Pittman, a retired professor at the University of Southern Mississippi and an expert in toxicology, said ricin has a number of qualities that make it desirable to someone bent on doing harm: The ingredients are relatively easy to obtain, it's not that hard to make a crude form of it, it's deadly and it's hard to detect in a victim's body.
"It's the perfect poison," he said.
The congressional report noted some ricin cases over the years.
In 2008, authorities said a man in Las Vegas may have accidentally poisoned himself with ricin that he had made from a backyard castor plant. Roger Bergendorff told The Associated Press at the time that he made the ricin just for the sake of having it, and swore he had no intention of harming anyone. He was sentenced to more than three years in prison.
In 2003, someone sent a ricin-laced letter to the Transportation Department that was critical of new rules governing truck drivers. A similar letter was addressed to the White House the following month. Both were intercepted and nobody was hurt.
In 2004, ricin was detected in a letter sent to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's Washington office.
Associated Press writers Jason Keyser in Chicago and Doug Esser in Seattle contributed to this report.
Follow Holbrook Mohr at http://twitter.com/holbrookmohr
Also on HuffPost:
Obama Is Not An American Citizen
One of the most popular Obama conspiracy theories (aka the Birther Movement), endorsed (or not denied) by the likes of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/_263532.html">Tom Delay</a>, <a href=http://www.huffingtonpost.com/_251393.html>Lou Dobbs</a>, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/_250891.html">Chuck Norris</a> and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/_242555.html">Liz Cheney</a>, it claims that Obama is not an American citizen, thus rendering his presidency illegitimate, or something. The theory hinges on the false claim that his birth certificate is fake. Birther queen Orly Taitz (a lawyer and dentist from California) continues to lead the march, despite her lawsuit getting <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/29/orly-taitz-lawsuit-thrown_n_338870.html">thrown out</a> and a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/13/orly-taitz-slapped-with-2_n_318546.html">$20,000 fine</a>.
Obama Wants "Re-Education Camps For Young People
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a proponent of many bizarre and outlandish critiques of President Obama, declared in April that the White House was trying to install <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/06/bachmann-obama-wants-re-e_n_183552.html">youth re-education camps</a>. "It's under the guise of -- quote -- volunteerism. But it's not volunteers at all. It's paying people to do work on behalf of government," said the Minnesota Republican. "I believe that there is a very strong chance that we will see that young people will be put into mandatory service. And the real concerns is that there are provisions for what I would call re-education camps for young people, where young people have to go and get trained in a philosophy that the government puts forward and then they have to go to work in some of these politically correct forums."
Larry Sinclair's Rabbit Hole Of Insanity
This one is a doozy. Larry Sinclair, <a href="http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0608/11164.html">a petty criminal specializing in forgery</a>, spread wild accusations via YouTube involving <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/06/18/obama-accuser-larry-sincl_n_107900.html">gay sex, drugs and possible murder committed by Barack Obama</a>. At one point reporters apparently took Sinclair seriously enough to attend a press conference he gave, most remarkable for his lawyer's appearance in a kilt, which he explained was intended to secure comfort for his unusually large sexual organs: "Those at the other end of the spectrum find [pants] quite confining."
The Case Of The Fake Thesis
In which a group of right-wingers get taken in by a satiric blog post on Barack Obama's college thesis, written ages ago, and frantically presented as real. The post, which was tagged as SATIRE, described how <em>Time</em> Magazine's Joe Klein had obtained ten pages of a thesis written by Barack Obama, in which he wrote about how the Constitution was "inherently flawed." Then Rush Limbaugh and Michael Ledeen presented this story as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/23/fake-obama-thesis-story-g_n_332255.html">fact</a>.
Bill Ayers Wrote 'Dreams From My Father"
A popular theory on right-wing websites like <a href="http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/2101151/posts">The Free Republic</a>, <a href="http://www.americanthinker.com/2008/10/who_wrote_dreams_from_my_fathe_1.html">American Thinker</a> and <a href="http://www.wnd.com/?pageId=110784">WorldNetDaily</a>, claiming that educator (and former radical) Bill Ayers helped Obama write "Dreams Of My Father." There is <a href="http://www.obamaconspiracy.org/category/books/">no evidence</a> supporting this claim.
Obama As Antichrist
Is Obama the Antichrist? <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDB5BFoSQLs&feature=player_embedded">These</a> <a href="http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/antichrist.asp">folks</a> think maybe so. McCain also verged on endorsing this theory during the campaign season with an attack ad called "<a href="http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1830590,00.html">The One.</a>"
Obama As Muslim
A theory that began circulating during the campaign season and has been kept alive by Tea Partiers, and other ultra-conservatives. It's taken different forms over the year (<a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/6516016/Will-Obama-Swearin-on-the-Holy-Koran-or-the-Holy-Bible-After-Attacking-Jesus-Sermon-on-the-Mount">Will Obama be sworn into office on Qur'an??</a>, asks one website.) Most recently Tea Party leader Mark Williams had a meltdown on CNN, and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/15/tea-party-leader-melts-do_n_286933.html">claimed</a> that Obama was an "Indonesian Muslim" and a "welfare thug." According to Obama and those who know him, this is not so.
Tells America In His Acceptance Speech To "Serve Satan"
Ever listened to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" backwards? How about Obama's presidential acceptance speech? This video suggests that the speech, like the Zeppelin song, contains a Satanic message when played in reverse. Go ahead - take a bong hit, try it and tell us what you hear.
Hugo Chavez Funded The Obama Campaign
Did Hugo Chavez fund the Obama campaign? No. But some people thought so after a Fox News affiliate issued a false report claiming that <a href="http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/chavez.asp">he did</a>.
Michelle Banished Barack's Girlfriend To The Caribbean
One of the few conspiracy theories to go after the Obamas' marriage. The claim is that Michelle banished Barack's female aide (and suspected lover) to the Caribbean. Every person involved, including the woman, says this is <a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1076695/Obama-hit-affair-smears-following-claims-attractive-aide-banned-wife.html">false</a>.
Obama Is Malcolm X's Son
Initiated by the author of the <a href="http://atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com/atlas_shrugs/2008/10/how-could-stanl.html">Atlas Shrugged</a> blog and claiming that Obama is actually Malcolm X's son. As Ezra Klein <a href="http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/ezraklein_archive?month=10&year=2008&base_name=obama_x">pointed out</a> at the time: "Honestly, who wouldn't give Malcolm props for that one?" Klein continued: "And think there's anyway we can fit Tupac into the bloodline? Or maybe Obama actually is Tupac? You know that whole shooting was some bullshit, right? Incidentally, I see no reason to stop with Malcolm. History is full of great Xs for Barack Obama to be related to. Professor X, which would explain why millions of white people lose their minds in his presence. Weapon X, which would explain the adamantium grafted onto his skeleton. XML, which would explain why it's so easy to structure his data. I'm sure there are others."