Ross C. Miller had a very unusual story to tell family members during a visit this week to his hometown of Elma.
It is a story involving the FBI, government intrigue and an alleged attempt to poison the president of the United States.
Earlier this year, the 44-year-old artist and small-businessman assisted the FBI as a witness in a case involving letters that were poisoned with a deadly substance called ricin and mailed to President Obama, a judge and a Republican senator, Roger F. Wicker of Mississippi.
Miller provided key evidence leading to the arrest in late April of James E. Dutschke, 41, a former martial arts instructor in Tupelo, Miss., according to Miller’s Buffalo attorney, Barry N. Covert. Dutschke is accused of sending threatening, ricin-laced letters to Obama, Wicker and a Mississippi judge, Sadie Holland.
The whole story, though, starts with beans.
Authorities strongly believe that the ricin was made from castor beans that Miller and his wife, Colleen, sold to Dutschke through their Internet sales company, Covert said.
Miller said he and his wife mainly use their website, bearcreekwoodcrafts.com, to sell artistic creations, including wood sculptures of bears, eagles and other creatures. They also sell homemade quilts that are used to decorate barns. And they have also sold some gardening products, including castor beans, which can be made into castor oil or grown into tall, multicolored decorative plants.
Miller, who has been visiting loved ones in East Aurora and Elma this week, said he was shocked and upset to learn that someone may have used beans he sold to make a substance intended to hurt or kill public officials.
“We were very upset. It was irritating and nerve-racking. I found it offensive that somebody would use a bean product that we sold them to try to kill someone,” Miller told The Buffalo News.
Covert said Miller’s cooperation with the FBI and U.S. Justice Department helped expose a dangerous anti-government plot.
“From the first moment, the Millers wanted to do the right thing, contact the government and help with the investigation,” Covert said. “The information they provided was very important to the government’s case, because Mr. Dutschke had told the FBI that he had never, ever purchased castor beans from anyone. The Millers had records proving that he did buy them from their company.”
The Millers moved from Elma to a small farm near Knoxville, Tenn., four years ago and opened their small business. They still have many friends and relatives in southern Erie County.
“We’re probably two of the most boring people on Planet Earth,” said Miller, a Marine Corps veteran. “We’d never expect to be caught up in something like this.”
Here’s how it happened.
On April 17, days after the ricin letters were delivered, FBI agents near Oxford, Miss., arrested Paul K. Curtis, a 45-year-old Elvis Presley impersonator with a history of complaints against the government. Agents accused him of sending the ricin letters to Obama, Wicker and Holland. Curtis vehemently denied the allegations.
Five days later, after investigating further and conducting a search of Curtis’ home, federal officials dropped the charges against Curtis. It was disclosed that the probe was now focused on Dutschke, a rival of Curtis and who had once ran unsuccessfully for a political office against Judge Holland’s son.
The Millers, meanwhile, had been following news reports in the case. They realized that ricin could be made from ground-up castor bean shells. In fact, ricin has been used in several attempts at biological terrorism in the past decade. According to an encyclopedia entry on the bionity.com scientific website, quantities of ricin are 6,000 times more poisonous than similar-sized quantities of cyanide, and 12,000 time more poisonous than rattlesnake venom.
“We’d been … hoping that nobody used any beans that were bought from us to make ricin,” Miller said.
“We checked our records to see if we’d ever sold any beans to anyone in that part of Mississippi. My wife keeps extensive records, and she found out that we had sold some beans to” Dutschke last year.
He was a faceless Internet customer who spent about $20 on about 100 castor beans the Millers sent to him.
The realization that they may have sold beans used to make ricin that was sprinkled on a letter to the world’s most powerful leader scared and deeply concerned the Millers. They called Covert, a Buffalo criminal-defense lawyer who has been a friend of Miller’s family for more than a decade.
Miller said he and his wife were not only upset that their product had been used in such a harmful way, but also scared that they might somehow be implicated in the investigation.
“I don’t trust authority. Authority scares me. I was a Marine, and I know what it’s like to wind up on the wrong side of authority,” Miller said. “I didn’t want to wind up on the wrong side of this case.”
After speaking to the Millers, Covert reached out to Anthony M. Bruce, senior litigation counsel at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Buffalo. He said Bruce then put him in touch with W. Chad Lamar, the federal prosecutor in Mississippi who was handling the ricin case.
“Chad Lamar was thrilled to hear from us,” Covert said.
“The Millers’ information was very helpful, especially after Dutschke had denied ever buying castor beans,” Covert said.
Dutschke pleaded not guilty, telling a reporter from the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal that he was wrongly accused and “categorically” denies the allegations.
Lamar could not be reached to comment for this article, and Bruce declined to comment. But law enforcement officials confirmed that the Millers did come forward with helpful information and that they are witnesses – and not prosecution targets – in the case.
If the case goes to trial, they could be called to testify, and they received a letter guaranteeing them immunity from prosecution, Covert said.
“It is legal to sell or possess castor beans, but once they are converted into ricin, that is legally classified by the government as a terrorist weapon,” Covert said.
Fortunately, authorities say, there is only one known incident in which ricin was successfully used to kill someone. That happened in London in 1978, when an assassin used a specially designed umbrella to shoot ricin at Georgi I. Markov, an exile from Bulgaria.
“As a terrorism agent, ricin can be used as a powder, a mist, a pellet or can be dissolved in water or weak acid,” according to an advisory from the New York State Health Department.
After this harrowing experience, Miller said, he and his wife plan to stop selling castor beans.
“We hardly make any money selling them. It’s a little extra cash for my gardening supplies,” Miller said. “It’s just not worth it.”