Op-Ed — Notes from Wake Robin, where truth is stranger than fiction

By Nancy Wolfe Stead

As a new resident of Wake Robin, I can attest it has been a long week.

I have to admit much of it was exciting: a mystery with lots of players. The spice to our routine up to now has been living within a massive construction project of additional units and community facilities. The onslaught last week of men in a variety of uniforms, hazmat suits, the telling non-uniform of FBI black suits and ties presented a cornucopia of speculation and gossip, but little fear. We were curious, yes, but the daily reporting of up-to-the moment information by Patrick McKee and staff as well as relevant experts in forensics and detection — and the opportunity to ask any and all questions — kept us feeling well tended, safe.

The presence of ricin was a mystery. The simple truth is that once Ms. Miller revealed to the hospital the possibility of possession of a deadly, prohibited substance at Wake Robin, medical protocol triggered an alert to federal, state and local health and crime authorities.

The event was categorized an official “crime scene,” with access to both physical site and investigation progress about the crime strictly guarded. Wake Robin had 24-hour surveillance/investigation by police, FBI, public health and a whole suitcase of acronyms of other agencies.

The bite of the press, the sensationalism, pit-in-the-stomach drama, and sheer error angered and saddened me. We are headline news all the way to the West Coast.

WCAX-TV’s coverage Wednesday night opened with the reporter flanking the Wake Robin sign at the entrance, announcing with hushed gloom the evacuation of residents going on up the hill. An attention-grabber, but not remotely the truth. Our comfort was not disturbed by the occasional request to refrain from using a particular elevator, hallway, or footpath.

Our first-floor common room was full night and day of tired, patient men in various uniforms around a large table littered with coffee cups. They have been unfailingly professional. No one has been discombobulated. No one was evacuated.

As a longtime Stowe Reporter journalist who has over the years taken hefty shots at FairPoint Communications, Burton, Grand Union, and Mount Mansfield Co., it is disconcerting to have the bite come to roost.

I write this from our apartment just down the hall from Ms. Miller’s. We had daily conversations as she walked her jaunty little dog. It is conceivable that I ate some of her confections — at a recent party for residents on our floor, most of us contributed a dish.

And so a certain element of creepiness accompanied the discovery that she not only manufactured ricin from castor pods she gathered in the gardens (castor-oil plants are a common outdoor ornamental), but she experimented with its effectiveness by testing it in food and drink given to friends.

Pieces of the mystery will no doubt fall into place during court proceedings. She has indicated that using it herself was her real intention. Late last week, the FBI announced the investigation was complete. A thorough cleaning of the dining facilities was scheduled and all personnel withdrawn. It feels good to have life back to normal.

I can safely say that the staff here has been magnificent, the castor plants in the gardens have disappeared, and the truth will out in the near future.

While I longed for Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple to take my hand and explain the complicated plot, it all shall be revealed. Then, as a local wag quipped to the marketing department, “Wake Robin will offer the only certified ricin-free continuing care community in the nation.”

Nancy Wolfe Stead is a former columnist at The Stowe Reporter. She lives at Wake Robin in Shelburne.

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