A Vermont woman has been arrested for allegedly making ricin, a potentially deadly toxin, at an upscale senior retirement village, then sneaking it in the food and drinks of fellow residents to test the poison's effectiveness.
The FBI says Betty Miller, 70, of Shelburne, told them she wanted to harm herself, but decided to test the effectiveness of the poison by sprinkling it on the food or in the drinks of other seniors living at Wake Robin.
A criminal complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont outlined the FBI’s basis for a charge of possession of an unregistered select agent.
During a brief hearing Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Conroy made note of Miller's long history of mental health struggles. She was ordered held in the custody of the U.S. Marshal for Vermont, at least until a hearing next week.
At Friday’s hearing, Miller was represented by a federal public defender, but told Judge Conroy she would be securing the legal services of an attorney.
Miller walked with an obvious limp and was dressed in hospital-type scrubs. She understood the judge’s questions, and answered them clearly and politely.
After the hearing, a man who appeared to be supporting Miller declined to answer questions from the media, and gave necn the middle finger as he ran away from reporters.
Earlier, necn reached out to several Shelburne residents, including residents of Wake Robin, to ask about Miller.
The only comments about Miller the news station heard were positive, with Miller described as sweet, affable, and devoted to her small dog. One Shelburne resident reached by necn, who did not want her name used, expressed surprise that Miller would be involved with such a nefarious plot.
Miller lived alone, according to a close friend of one of Miller’s neighbors.
The complaint and charge against Miller were filed in Burlington's federal court on Thursday afternoon and unsealed Friday morning.
In the document, the FBI noted that no Wake Robin residents reported symptoms consistent with ricin poisoning.
However, since the complaint was filed, necn learned a woman residing at Wake Robin did test positive for ricin.
Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, confirmed to necn that a urinalysis test of a resident showed trace amounts of ricin in her system.
Some people may show low levels of ricin in their bodies from the environment, Levine noted, but a source familiar with the investigation said law enforcement believes the woman had been poisoned.
Despite the positive test for ricin, the woman should be just fine, Levine said, because the findings were so low.
"It definitely could’ve been worse," he told necn. "We do know that she did have some symptoms over the weekend, long ago, that were very brief. I don’t think she would have come to anyone's attention except for the fact she was identified by law enforcement as part of their investigation of the case."
Levine said the suspected poisoning victim was feeling better the day after experiencing her symptoms.
According to agent Mark Emmons, an experienced investigator of weapons of mass destruction who authored the FBI’s criminal complaint, the ricin powder was allegedly found in a wicker basket holding pill bottles inside a kitchen cupboard in Miller's Wake Robin apartment Tuesday afternoon.
Emmons’ criminal complaint says Miller drove to the University of Vermont Medical Center Tuesday asking for a health evaluation. It is unclear at this time what motivated the trip to the hospital, or if the handling of ricin contributed to the hospital trip.
At the hospital, according to investigators, Miller made statements to health care providers that she had made ricin and then placed it in food and drinks being consumed by her fellow residents over a period of several weeks.
That revelation, according to the FBI's complaint, resulted in first responders being called to Wake Robin.
A substance found in a pill bottle labeled "Ricin" tested positive in the field for ricin, and a test at the Vermont Department of Health laboratory on Wednesday confirmed the results, the FBI said.
Investigators also found printed instructions for making ricin and a laptop computer in the apartment.
Investigators said Miller told them she developed an interest in plant-based poisons over the summer, and based on her research, harvested between 30 to 40 castor beans from plants around the Wake Robin property.
She then allegedly made about two to three tablespoons of ricin in two batches in her apartment's kitchen.
According to the FBI's complaint, Miller tested the effectiveness of her ricin by putting it on seniors' food and beverages she expected them to eat at least three times.
Ricin is found naturally in castor beans, which can be treated to form an extremely toxic poison, especially in its powder form. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ricin works by getting inside a body's cells and preventing the cells from making proteins, which kills the cells.
In a written statement, the president and CEO of Wake Robin said Miller would not be returning to the community. Patrick McKee added that the case was an isolated incident.
"The toxic substance was contained; no residents were evacuated," McKee wrote in the statement. "The affected apartment was closed off and thoroughly searched. We have received assurances from the VT Department of Health and the FBI that no one’s health is at risk."
Wake Robin also thanked members of law enforcement for their hard work and professionalism, and praised their residents for their compassion and patience. McKee said Wake Robin would work to maintain the community’s safety and protect residents’ privacy.
According to a Wake Robin spokeswoman, the castor plants had been used as decorative touches in the facility’s landscaping, but were removed this week as part of the safety protocol.