By Mike Donoghue and Lisa Scagliotti
A 70-year-old Wake Robin resident made her first appearance in federal court Friday after her arrest for making the deadly poison ricin at her home and attempting to give it to her neighbors at the upscale retirement center in Shelburne.
Betty Miller is charged with possession of an unregistered biological agent, according to court records following an FBI investigation this week.
The FBI said Miller told investigators and health care personnel at the UVM Medical Center that she attempted to poison other residents using homemade ricin, “which she placed in multiple servings of other residents’ food and beverages over a period of weeks,” Special Agent Mark Emmons said in his six-page affidavit.
On Friday afternoon, Miller appeared before Magistrate Judge John M. Conroy for a preliminary hearing in U.S. District Court in Burlington. With short-cropped gray hair and wearing a dark brown short-sleeved t-shirt and knit pants, Miller was escorted into the courtroom walking with a pronounced limp.
Conroy read the complaint against Miller, but did not ask for a plea yet. Instead, the judge agreed to a request from the U.S. Attorney to delay the proceedings several days in order for prosecutors to gather additional information in their case. Citing the seriousness of the charge against Miller and her “lengthy mental health history,” Conroy said the extra time was warranted.
Miller was represented Friday by David L. McColgin, a court-appointed defender. McColgin did not object to the hearing delay or the request that Miller remain jailed.
The next hearing date was set for 11 a.m. on December 6 to determine probable cause for the charge against Miller and to review whether she will remain in custody while she awaits a trial.
The request for the delay also asked that Miller remain in custody. “Ms. Miller presents a danger to the community that cannot be addressed with release conditions,” prosecutors explained in the delay request. In court, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugenia A.P. Cowles said Miller’s behavior so far was threatening to others and if she were released there was “reason to believe Ms. Miller could be moved to harm” someone.
In the written request to keep Miller in custody, Cowles wrote that “it appears even the most stringent of release conditions would not ensure Ms. Miller does not prepare further dangerous substances and/or attempt to harm those around her. Ms. Miller indicated in her interview with law enforcement both an intent to harm herself and a willingness to hurt others in the process of doing so. Absent further information about her mental state and present intentions, the Court cannot create conditions adequate to protect Ms. Miller and those around her from harm.”
Miller was released into the custody of the U.S. Marshal until the hearing next Wednesday and likely would remain at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility where she was taken after her arrest on Thursday afternoon. The public was not notified of her arrest until Conroy agreed to unseal the charging documents on Friday morning at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
At the brief court hearing, Judge Conroy also noted that Miller’s public defender assignment was only temporary. Miller does not qualify financially for the court to provide her with a defense lawyer for the case, Conroy said, asking Miller if she understood she would need to hire her own lawyer. “I’m prepared to do that, your honor,” Miller replied.
Following the hearing, McColgin refused reporters’ requests to comment.
The investigation into Miller’s actions began after she made her comments at the UVM Medical Center. Her car was seized and taken to the Vermont State Police impound lot in Williston. A subsequent search of her residence found various pill bottles, including one marked “Ricin” that was half-full of a yellowish/white powder that later tested positive as ricin, Emmons said.
Investigators also found a laptop computer and a sheet of instructions for making ricin that appeared to have been printed from the internet.
Miller explained in an interview at the hospital on Tuesday that she became interested in plant-based poisons during the past summer, FBI agent Emmons said. Miller described how she “harvested 30-40 castor beans from plants growing on the property at Wake Robin,” Emmons wrote. He said Miller indicated she generated between 2 and 3 tablespoons of ricin on two occasions in the kitchen at her residence.
“Miller stated she decided to test the effectiveness of the ricin on other residents of Wake Robin,” the FBI agent wrote. “On at least three occasions, Miller exposed other residents to the ricin she had produced by placing it on food and/or beverages she expected them to ingest.”
Emmons went on: “Ms. Miller indicated her goal was to injure herself, but she wanted to test the effectiveness of the ricin on others.”
Part of the investigation has involved the Vermont Department of Health. In her request to detain Miller, Cowles noted that: “Health Department testing of one individual Miller admitted to poisoning came back positive for the presence of ricin.”
Health Department spokesman Ben Truman on Friday confirmed that information but said the individual is not sick now. “We are now aware of one person who likely became ill with ricin poisoning, and we have been following up with that person,” he said. This was someone other than Miller who also is a Wake Robin resident but who is recovering from apparent mild exposure.
“No one is currently ill with ricin poisoning, and the danger for those who could have been exposed is over. Symptoms would have appeared by 24 hours after ingesting, and that time has passed,” Truman explained.
Symptoms of ricin exposure vary depending on whether it is inhaled or ingested. In this case, the homemade ricin was put in food and beverages. According to health officials, consuming ricin that way would result in vomiting, bloody diarrhea and possibly hallucinations and seizures typically in less than 10 hours.
Prosecutors said evidence showed that Miller’s actions were carefully planned. “She researched plant-based toxins and prepared at least one extremely dangerous substance in the quiet comfort of her apartment. She relied on instructions from the internet and used, at least in part, natural substances to make her poison. By her own admission, she administered those substances to other residents in order to test their efficacy. While she has indicated her ultimate intent was to hurt herself, she demonstrated a callous disregard for the lives of others in the process,” Cowles wrote.
Wake Robin officials have not spoken to news reporters about the incident so far. In a written statement released Friday by its public relations firm, Wake Robin’s President and Chief Executive Patrick McKee, described the chain of events and said state and federal investigators have now left the campus.
“This was an isolated incident. The toxic substance was contained; no residents were evacuated. The affected apartment was closed off and thoroughly searched,” McKee said. “We have received assurances from the VT Department of Health and the FBI that no one’s health is at risk. The resident of the apartment in question is now involved with the criminal justice system and will not be returning to Wake Robin.”
The Shelburne Fire and Police Departments and the State Hazardous Materials response team responded to the retirement complex on Tuesday after Wake Robin officials were alerted about Miller being treated at the hospital, officials said.
Since then, Truman said, Health Department officials have worked with Wake Robin staff to direct the cleaning and testing effort at the facility. Environmental samples were taken from common areas where residents gather for meals and socializing. “They all came back negative,” Truman said.
Miller’s living area will also be sanitized once the investigation is complete. “It’s a crime scene now,” Truman said.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine and other Health Department staff met with Wake Robin residents, staff and administrators at a large group meeting on Tuesday, Truman said. State health officials have been in touch with Wake Robin staff and administrators every day since this began.
In his written statement, McKee thanked responders, investigators, staff and residents. He also emphasized maintaining safety and privacy. The statement said Wake Robin officials would not be granting interviews on the matter nor would news media be allowed on the Wake Robin property.
Miller lived alone with her dog in unit 110 on the ground floor of a three-story building at Wake Robin. When asked about the pet, Wake Robin spokeswoman Charlotte Lyman said she was unable to comment.
According to the search warrant in the investigation, in addition to her unit number and last name, Miller’s apartment door also had a sign saying: “I wish I could be the person my dog thinks I am.”