Seventy-year-old Betty Miller drove herself to the emergency room in Shelburne, Vermont. When she told doctors why she brought herself in, they called the feds. Her admission got her federally charged with possession of a biological weapon. After recovery in the hospital, she was hauled away in handcuffs.
FBI investigators soon arrived at Betty’s Wake Robin retirement community apartment in hazmat suits and confirmed Betty really had been testing a ricin recipe out on neighbors, just to see how good it was. She told the ER doctors that she wanted to make sure she perfected the recipe before she used it on herself.
“We are working with our federal, state and local partners and we are taking all necessary steps to ensure this incident is resolved safely,” FBI spokesman Peter Fitzgerald assured the public. Field tests followed up by lab testing both proved positive for the deadly toxin ricin.
She personally picked the required castor beans and didn’t have to go far to find them. The plants were growing right there in the retirement community as part of the landscape. All she needed were 30-40 beans.
Following the instructions on a printout she researched, Betty whipped up a few batches of the deadly neurotoxin in her kitchen, curious to see how well it worked. According to court documents, she tested “the poison’s power on her neighbors for weeks.” Records say, “Miller put the deadly powder in other residents’ food and drinks to see what would happen.”
The half-full pill bottle that agents, shielded by protective gear, found in Betty’s kitchen in the upscale retirement community was carefully labeled “ricin.” Nearby were the other necessary ingredients along with the recipe.
Vermont’s health commissioner, Dr. Mark Levine, is thankful that none of the residents were killed. He wouldn’t share with the public how much ricin it takes to kill someone. It might give other people ideas. Just grinding up the beans can kill you but “it could be sprinkled on something and you might get no symptoms or a little nausea, or it could be embedded in something you don’t realize and you get a huge whopping dose.”
Symptoms appear in less than 10 hours. “If you ingest it in food or liquid, you actually get gastrointestinal symptoms, like you might expect, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea.” Miller allegedly sprinkled some on her victims’ food but only one person had any symptoms. They “became ill with symptoms compatible with ricin ingestion last weekend. The individual is now well.” Just because the others didn’t get sick, “Doesn’t mean they didn’t ingest it,” Levine pointed out. “It just wasn’t at a level sufficient enough to cause problems.”
Wake Robin’s inhabitants took it in stride. “This is a community of mature elders with wide experiences, some worldly, and it takes more than this incident, however serious it is, to rattle us,” Henri de Marne wrote in an email. The former writer for the Burlington Free Press added, “there was no panic among residents, just concern about the unusual case.”
Former Governor Madeleine Kunin also calls Wake Robin home. “The good news is no one got sick. Obviously, we were saddened to hear what happened, but we were kept informed and felt included.”
A professor at the University of Vermont, David Barrington, calls ricin “devious and effective.” In Vermont, castor beans are easy to come by. “It’s popular because it grows fast, it’s big, it’s showy and it’s different looking.” Not native to the state, it generally grows like a weed any place warm. “If you go to a frost-free zone, castor bean is as weedy as ragweed, you see it everywhere,” Barrington explains.
In court, prosecutors and the judge discussed Miller’s “extensive mental health history” which includes past attempts at suicide.
According to the federal prosecutor, “Miller carefully planned her crime.” She fears Betty “will threaten witnesses” and wants Miller safely behind bars while the probe unwinds.
Judge John Conroy observed that Miller has no criminal history, or history of drug abuse but does have strong family ties. Her late husband, Joseph Miller served as Democratic Representative for Durham in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. One of the couple’s two children lives in Vermont.
Because of her age, Miller will need “appropriate placement” but for now, she will remain a guest of the U.S. Marshals.
Patrick McKee, President and CEO of Wake Robin, released a statement to the press. “The resident of the apartment in question is now involved with the criminal justice system and will not be returning to Wake Robin.” He assures residents, “We will continue to maintain our community’s safety and protect their privacy through this time.”