By MADELINE HUGHES
On Nov. 28, 2017, local, state and federal agents swarmed the Wake Robin retirement community to investigate reports of exposure to a possibly toxic substance. They found resident Betty Miller had made the toxin ricin.
In May, Miller pled guilty to producing, storing and possessing ricin.
One year later, FBI Special Agent Mark Emmons, who coordinated the response to the Wake Robin incident, returned to Shelburne to give a presentation to Chittenden County first responders. The Local Emergency Planning Meeting for the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission met at the Shelburne Town Offices on Tuesday, Nov. 20 to discuss what happened that day at Wake Robin and what first responders could take away from the situation.
Emmons was at the Vermont Air National Guard at Burlington International Airport base for a security exercise when he received word that ricin was found at Wake Robin. After assessing the situation, he said he didn’t see the call as a very credible threat. Others in the room, including Shelburne Police Chief Aaron Noble, agreed. The suspect was a 70-year-old woman in one of the wealthiest retirement communities in the state.
“Without a crystal ball, I don’t know how to gauge these threats and know they are real,” Emmons said, explaining that with multiple reports of white powder found in the mail nationwide in recent years, he had spent days on cases that turned out to be hoaxes.
“I’m surprised I’ve had one real (weapons of mass destruction) case in my career,” he said.
Ricin, a biological agent, is classified by the FBI as a weapon of mass destruction, second only to bombs in that classification, Emmons explained.
The investigation began when Miller told her psychiatrist she had made ricin. The psychiatrist alerted Wake Robin staff, who locked down Miller’s apartment. The retirement home staff then contacted the local police, who went to investigate.
Patrick McKee, president and CEO of Wake Robin, recalled two Shelburne police officers in his office looking up the substance online.
“They Googled ricin, and said, ‘Holy s—,’ after seeing what it was, and contacted the chief and told him, ‘Holy s—,’ and then the panic button was pushed,” McKee told the room of first responders.
Noble then contacted state authorities, and ultimately the FBI, to solve the case. The case was officially turned over to the FBI when the ricin tested positive, but that move came only after careful handling by emergency responders. The responding Shelburne Police officers paused in the field and contacted the proper authorities to handle the substance.
The first responders in the room Tuesday agreed that sometimes emergency personnel are quick to jump into emergency situations.
Bob Lake, the town’s emergency management coordinator and health officer, explained that of the two officers who responded to the ricin incident, one was training the other. He said the training officer was going through the process slowly and carefully.
“Noble has fostered this ‘take everything seriously’ mentality, which has helped,” Lake said. “And if it’s ricin now, it’s going to be ricin a half hour from now.”
Emmons said the Wake Robin ricin incident was a fairly straightforward case because the substance was quickly contained, and the various federal, state and local authorities responded well. He explained that Miller cooperated with authorities, and investigators were able to gather a large amount of information.
“You can still mishandle things when it’s straightforward and simple, but to our credit, we didn’t mess it up,” he said. “We can’t be complacent in these types of cases.”
Others at Tuesday’s meeting agreed.
“Local FBI was outstanding,” McKee said.
He explained that the Bureau kept staff in the loop and was able to help tell them how to talk with media outlets.
Emmons interrogated Miller with the help of personnel from the Vermont Department of Health.
“I was concerned it was going to slow us down,” Emmons said, but added that the health officer added to the interrogation.
The investigation found that Miller created the ricin from castor beans grown at Wake Robin. She had suicidal tendencies, and had been hospitalized earlier that fall for previously inhaling her ricin.
“Fortunately for public safety, she was so forthright with us,” Emmons said.
After the investigation was completed, Wake Robin brought in a hazardous material disposal company from Maine to clean the affected areas, McKee said.
Part of Miller’s punishment was paying $90,000 in restitution to Wake Robin for expenses related to the clean up, and on Sept. 6, 2018, she was sentenced to time served and five years probation. Miller is currently in a mental health counseling program at Arcadia Hospital in Bangor, Maine.