By Mike Donoghue and Lisa Scagliotti
The 70-year-old Wake Robin resident who the FBI says admitted to making homemade ricin and slipping it into her neighbors’ food and drinks was scheduled to return to federal court Wednesday.
The FBI arrested Betty Miller last week after telling investigators she produced the fatally toxic poison in her kitchen from plants at the Shelburne retirement community. She has been held in jail since a brief court hearing Friday.
The details were outlined in an affidavit by FBI investigators as part of the federal complaint that accuses Miller of possessing an unregistered biological agent.
The FBI said Miller told investigators and University of Vermont Medical Center employees 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 an assistant U.S. attorney to delay the proceedings three days so prosecutors could 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.
That hearing was scheduled for Wednesday as The Citizen was going to press. The hearing was to determine whether Miller will remain in custody.
Miller was temporarily represented Friday by David L. McColgin, a court-appointed federal public defender. McColgin did not object to the hearing delay or the request that Miller remain jailed.
Prosecutors asked that Miller remain in custody, saying it would be potentially dangerous to release her. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugenia A.P. Cowles said Miller’s behavior has been threatening to others and if she were released, there was “reason to believe Ms. Miller could be moved to harm” someone.
In a 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.”
At the brief court hearing, Judge Conroy noted that Miller’s public defender assignment is temporary. Miller does not qualify financially for the court to provide a defense lawyer, 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.
After the hearing, McColgin declined comment.
The investigation began after Miller went to UVM Medical Center early last week and told health care providers she had handled ricin. Her car was seized and taken to the Vermont State Police impound lot in Williston. A search of her residence found various pill bottles in her kitchen, including one marked “Ricin” that was half-full of a yellowish/white powder that tests later showed was 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.
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.
In an interview at the hospital, Miller said she became interested in plant-based poisons this 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; the highly decorative castor bean plant is often used in landscaping. Ricin is derived from castor beans.
He said Miller indicated she produced 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.
“Ms. Miller indicated her goal was to injure herself, but she wanted to test the effectiveness of the ricin on others.”
In her request to detain Miller, Cowles wrote that the Vermont Health Department had tested another Wake Robin resident, and the results “came back positive for the presence of ricin.”
Health Department spokesman Ben Truman confirmed that information but said the individual is not sick now; the exposure to ricin was apparently mild.
“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. “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.”
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.
Throughout this incident, Wake Robin officials have not spoken to news reporters directly. 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 had left the complex.
“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 Vermont 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, Nov. 28, after Wake Robin officials were alerted that Miller was being treated at the hospital, officials said.
Health department officials then worked with Wake Robin staff to direct cleaning and testing efforts. 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’s health commissioner, Dr. Mark Levine, and other health department staff met with Wake Robin residents, staff and administrators at a large group meeting Nov. 28, Truman said. State health officials have been in touch with Wake Robin staff and administrators every day since.
In his written statement, McKee thanked responders, investigators, staff and residents. He also emphasized maintaining safety and privacy. The statement said Wake Robin officials will not be granting interviews on the matter nor will 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 addition to her unit number and last name, Miller’s apartment door had a sign saying: “I wish I could be the person my dog thinks I am.”