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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Resident Arrested In Ricin Incident At Shelburne Retirement Community

According to court documents, Betty Miller made ricin out of castor beans she harvested from the grounds of Wake Robin in Shelburne.
According to court documents, Betty Miller made ricin out of castor beans she harvested from the grounds of Wake Robin in Shelburne.

The FBI has arrested a resident of the Wake Robin retirement community in Shelburne after she admitted to making ricin and then putting it in the food and beverages of other residents in an attempt to test its effectiveness, according to court documents.

Betty Miller, 70, allegedly told investigators she made ricin with the intention of hurting herself. On at least three occasions she exposed other residents to ricin to test it, the documents say.

Ricin is a poison found naturally in castor beans and can be turned into a powder, mist or pellet, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC says if someone ingests ricin, the symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea and severe dehydration.

No residents reported symptoms of ricin poisoning at the time. According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s office, any threat from the substances in Miller’s apartment has been neutralized and no traces of ricin or other hazardous materials were found outside of her apartment.

The FBI is charging Miller with “knowing possession of an unregistered biological agent, where such an agent is a select agent.”  She faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

The CDC defines “select agents” as biological agents or toxins that have “the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety.”

Wake Robin President and CEO Patrick McKee said the case was “an isolated incident” and that Miller would not be returning to the retirement community.

The FBI began its investigation on Tuesday after getting notification of an incident “potentially involving a potentially hazardous select agent.”

The court documents state the day before, Miller told health care providers she had tried to poison other residents at Wake Robin and that she drove to the University of Vermont Medical Center for evaluation and observation.

A team made of members from the state’s Hazardous Material Response Team and the Vermont National Guard’s 15th Civil Support Team went into Miller’s residence at Wake Robin to look for suspicious powders and test for ricin.

They found a wicker basket containing pill bottles labeled “apple seed”, “cherry seed”, “yew seed”, “ricin”, “castor bean” and another kind of seed.  

The team found a yellowish powder in the bottle labeled “ricin” and initial tests — that were later confirmed by the Vermont Department of Health Laboratory — showed that the powder was ricin.

The team also found what appeared to be instructions from the internet on how to make ricin.

Investigators interviewed Miller at the UVM Medical Center Tuesday evening and she told them during the summer she became interested in “plant based poison.” Then, after conducting researching online, Miller harvested castor beans from plants at Wake Robin and made between two and three tablespoons of ricin, the court records allege.

Miller allegedly admitted to investigators she put ricin in food and beverages of other residents because “her goal was to injure herself, but she wanted to test the effectiveness of the ricin on others.”

This post was updated at 1:07 p.m.

This post was updated at 5:44 p.m. with information from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Wake Robin.

Disclosure: Wake Robin is an underwriter of VPR

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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