Woman in ricin case accepts plea agreement

A Shelburne woman who authorities said possessed the poison ricin at the Wake Robin retirement community has settled on a plea agreement that could net her a nine-month prison sentence.

Betty Miller, 70, entered a guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Burlington last Friday afternoon to a felony charge of knowingly possessing ricin last October and November. The incident caused a major scare at Wake Robin and in Shelburne.

If the federal judge accepts the plea agreement, Miller’s sentence will consist of the time she has already served followed by three years of supervised release, according to the agreement.  Both sides agreed to recommend that “supervised release include mental health treatment, including a secure, in-patient, residential treatment if at all possible,” the seven-page signed plea bargain notes.

Miller is scheduled for sentencing on Sept. 6.  In the meantime, the U.S. Probation Office will complete a pre-sentence investigation report about Miller’s life history. Judge Christina Reiss said if she does not accept the plea agreement after the report is complete, Miller will be free to withdraw her guilty plea or try to strike another deal with the government.

The maximum penalty for the offense is five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine. She also could be ordered to pay restitution – conceivably to Shelburne, state, and federal officials who had to comb Wake Robin for evidence and had to clear out the ricin.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugenia A. P. Cowles, chief of the criminal division, outlined the basis for the case after Miller entered her new plea.

Miller, who lived alone at the retirement community, is accused of making ricin in her kitchen from castor beans taken from plants growing on the Wake Robin property, Shelburne Police said. Investigators say she put ricin on food and beverages intended for others in order to test its potency.

Miller has said she holds a bachelor’s degree in occupational medicine.

She had pleaded not guilty following her arrest Nov. 30 to a charge of possessing an unregistered select agent – the poison ricin – in her Wake Robin apartment.

The government did not reduce the original charge. Miller pleaded on Friday to the original allegation, although the wording was changed slightly to better comply with the federal statute, Cowles and defense lawyer Paul Volk said.

She entered the courtroom wearing handcuffs, blue jeans and a blue hospital-scrub style shirt. She walked with a light-colored cane.

Shortly after Miller’s arrest, Volk had said Miller had an extensive mental health history, which needed to be explored.

Judge Reiss reviewed with Miller the list of 11 medications Miller is currently taking before allowing Friday’s hearing to proceed.  Miller said she has been treated for depression and a psychiatric nurse at the prison is working with her.

Cowles and Volk agreed that Miller should remain held without bail at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington pending sentencing. Miller has been incarcerated since her arrest late last year.

After the hearing, Volk and Cowles both declined to comment further saying there was little to say while the case is still pending.

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