Justice or Just Hysteria?
April 16, 2004
By Alex Tizon
SPOKANE, Washington – There’s no question Ken Olsen made the stuff. He brought some castor beans to his work cubicle, put them through a coffee grinder and mixed in a common solvent. He then poured the concoction through a paper filter. Within minutes, Olsen, a respected longtime resident of this eastern Washington city, had in his possession a few drops of ricin, one of the world’s most lethal toxins.
From the start, Olsen, who had no record of violence, said he never intended harm. He said he made the poison just to see if he could. Family and friends describe him as a chronic daydreamer and “computer geek” given to flights of fanciful Internet research.
Investigators took a much darker view. When he made the ricin, Olsen was involved in an affair with a masseuse. Authorities theorized that he was plotting to kill his wife of 28 years, Carol, to be with his mistress of two years, Debora Davis.
The presence of ricin violated federal law, and prosecutors, lacking evidence to charge Olsen with attempted murder, instead charged him with a little-used law intended for terrorists: possession of a biological agent with the intent to use it as a weapon.
At the time of Olsen’s arrest on June 19, 2002, the nation was recovering from the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Anthrax was a new word in the American vernacular, and the U.S. was vigilant for another attack.
Spokane residents froze in front of televisions — much as they did on Sept. 11 — as FBI agents and bio-terrorism specialists swarmed Olsen’s home.
“They [the media] were saying there were chemicals that could kill thousands,” said Frank Cikutovich, a longtime resident and an attorney. “People were scared. The community was ready to lynch him.”
Olsen, 49, became one of only a handful of people in the U.S. convicted of ricin possession. He was sentenced to 13 years and nine months, the stiffest penalty ever imposed for that crime. Today, Olsen, who has declined all interviews on the advice of his lawyer, sits in a federal prison in Lompoc, Calif.
Meanwhile, his wife and mistress have formed an unlikely alliance. As Olsen’s lawyers prepare to file an appeal this month, the women, along with other supporters, are raising the volume on their claim that Olsen was swept into prison by post-Sept. 11 hysteria and an overzealous Justice Department.
Olsen’s advocates question the validity of using federal anti-terrorism statutes to prosecute a local, non-terrorism-related case — a situation that could arise again and again as police agencies step up efforts against illegal toxins. Legal scholars say it is a legitimate question.
The laws used against Olsen, part of the 1989 U.S. Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act, were designed to make it easier to convict terrorists. They require lower standards of proof and, in general, impose harsher sentences. It is an area of law that is largely untested.
Had Olsen been charged with attempted murder, prosecutors not only would have had to identify a target, but also prove that he took steps to carry out the killing — neither of which lawyers were required to do in Olsen’s trial. All they had to prove was that he possessed ricin with the intent to use it. Under federal law, attempted murder carries a maximum sentence of 20 years; possession of ricin carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
“When this is over, I don’t know if Ken and I will stay married,” Carol Olsen said. “But I know Ken, I know his personality, I know his character. I’ve known him for over 30 years. He wouldn’t have harmed me. What’s happened is a mistake that’s gone too far.”
Davis, the former mistress, called the trial “a travesty.”
“This is an innocent man in jail. He wasn’t going to kill his wife. There’s no way,” Davis said. The investigators “had their minds made up before they came to me. No matter what I said, it didn’t matter.”
Prosecutors, who maintain they did nothing wrong, acknowledge that Sept. 11 brought changes that might have come to bear on Olsen’s case.
“I wouldn’t discount the fact that some people might have said, ‘Oh my God, look what we have on our hands,’ ” said Tom Rice, head of the criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office in Spokane.
“But if the criticism is that we’re doing our job better since 9/11, then good, we’re doing our job better.”
Carol Olsen, 48, looks wanly around at her overgrown yard and gestures toward a yellow ribbon she tied to a tree on the first day of the war in Iraq. Patriotism runs deep in the family. Carol’s father is a retired Marine general. Ken’s father served in World War II. Two of the couple’s four children are in the military; the oldest, Matthew, 27, served in Iraq. Their only daughter, Amanda, 25, is engaged to an Army Ranger.
Ken Olsen once tried to join the Air Force but was turned away because of scoliosis, a curvature of the spine.
The Olsen family has lived in this city of 200,000 since 1985. Carol was a stay-at-home mom; Kevin was a Scoutmaster and a software engineer for a high-tech company, Agilent Technologies Inc., where he was an employee for 23 years.
“Ken was a computer geek,” Carol says. When he wasn’t tinkering in the garage or leading Boy Scouts on a hike, he was in front of his computer.
The trouble began Aug. 21, 2001, when a co-worker at Agilent found an 80-page document on how to make a bomb. The co-worker took the document to supervisors, who traced it to Olsen’s computer. Company investigators examined his Internet logs and discovered Olsen had spent more than a year researching explosives and poisons. They found books in his cubicle on how to kill people without leaving a trace and a piece of paper with calculations of dosages for a 150-pound person — the approximate weight of his wife.
Agilent fired Olsen for misusing company computers and called police, who confiscated various items from Olsen’s cubicle, including glassware, utensils and boxes containing computer parts. Olsen was known in the office as the go-to guy for fixing things because he seemed to have all the parts at his desk.
Police also found letters and cards from Davis, who later told investigators she had had a two-year affair with Olsen that ended two months before he was fired — after Olsen refused to leave his wife.
The items found in the cubicle were sent to a state police lab, then to the Army’s Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Md.
Months passed before local investigators were notified that some of the items — test tubes, a coffee grinder, a juice jar and four allergy pills — tested positive for ricin.
Investigators said Olsen had made the poison shortly before it was found. Olsen, through his lawyers, said most of the poison had been sitting in test tubes in a cardboard box for months; he said he intended to throw it away but had forgotten.
Between the time of his firing and his arrest by federal agents 10 months later, Olsen found work as a massage therapist, earning significantly less than his $6,000 monthly salary at Agilent. He started taking antidepressants, and he and Carol entered counseling. Carol refused to work with investigators. During that time, the Sept. 11 attacks shook the country, and Congress passed the Patriot Act, which strengthened the 1989 anti-terrorism act.
After his arrest in June 2002, Olsen spent more than a year in federal detention awaiting his trial, which was delayed twice. Government attorneys argued that Olsen was too dangerous to be released on bail. His trial started June 30, 2003.
Armed with a new mandate to aggressively pursue biological and chemical threats, federal lawyers brought the full weight of the government to court.
Prosecutors called more than 30 witnesses, including FBI agents, experts on weapons of mass destruction and seven members of the Army’s Infectious Diseases Institute, who testified to the nefarious qualities of ricin.
Olsen’s defense was that he made the ricin out of scientific curiosity. He had been studying to be a massage therapist and was experimenting making massage oils with castor beans when he digressed into making ricin “just to see if he could do it,” said attorney John Clark. Olsen didn’t testify but later told his wife that he wished he had. His attorneys called only seven witnesses, five of them family friends who testified to Olsen’s peaceful, inquisitive, eccentric nature.
He rebuilt engines, he invented gadgets for his car. “He was the kind of guy,” attorney Tina Hunt later said, “who if you asked him what time it was, would go online and research everything about clocks and maybe even try to build one.”
Experts differed widely on the purity of Olsen’s ricin, which amounted to about 3 grams — or about one-tenth of an ounce — nearly all of it appearing like residue at the bottom of two test tubes. An expert for the prosecution said the ricin was enough to kill as many as 7,500 people, while a defense expert questioned whether Olsen’s poison was pure enough to kill even one person. The poison was never tested for its toxicity.
The testimony underscored the paradoxical nature of ricin, which is made from the waste of ground castor beans. The toxin can be extracted from the beans using kitchen tools. Some people use the poison to ward off or kill garden pests.
Castor bean plants grow wild in many places, including California. The castor plant is a common ornamental shrub in nurseries, and bead shops sell the beans for necklaces and rosaries. Castor oil, known for its viscosity, is widely used in lipsticks, shampoos, nylons, motor lubricants and brake fluids.
Highly concentrated ricin is so toxic that a mere dot could be lethal if injected under the skin or into the bloodstream. More than 140 nations consider it a potential biological weapon and even a possible weapon of mass destruction. Experts say ricin is most efficient as a tool of assassination.
In the most famous example, a Bulgarian dissident named Georgi Markov was killed in London in 1978 when a police operative used a modified umbrella to jab a ricin pellet into his thigh. Markov died three days later of multiple organ failure.
Ricin works by preventing cells from making necessary proteins, causing the cells to die and eventually shutting down the body. There is no antidote. But the toxin itself, outside the body, can be neutralized by bleach or even hot, soapy water, something Olsen said he knew.
According to court documents, Olsen wrote in his diary that he mixed fruit smoothies in the same blender that he used to grind castor beans for massage oils. He said he was diligent about washing the blender between uses.
The most heated debate during Olsen’s trial was about the notion of intent. Defense attorneys repeatedly told jurors that the government needed to prove Olsen intended to harm someone. Prosecutors argued that because ricin had no legitimate use, mere possession implied the intent to harm. In closing arguments, Asst. U.S. Atty. Stephanie Whitaker told the jury:
“We don’t have to prove that he intended to kill somebody
“The issues that you have to decide is whether he possessed it, or made it for a non-peaceful purpose.”
The jury took less than two hours to convict Olsen. At his sentencing Oct. 28, 2003, Olsen spoke publicly on the matter for the first time:
“At no time did I have a purpose or design to harm anyone,” he said. “I never threatened or harmed anyone in my past or would I today.”
FBI agents in the case praised the outcome. Norm Brown, FBI supervisor of the Inland Northwest Joint Terrorism Task Force, which helped in the investigation, said no matter who the intended victim, Olsen put people at risk by making and keeping the ricin in a workplace.
The Olsen family, and Davis, condemned the trial. Aside from the presumed would-be victim, Carol, the most vocal critic was retired Brig. Gen. William Weise, Carol’s father, who attended the proceedings. Weise called it “a gross miscarriage” that stirred in him conflicting feelings about his country.
Only a handful of ricin cases have reached federal court. In the mid-1990s, four Minnesota men were the first to be tried and convicted under the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorist Act for possession of ricin.
They were members of an extremist group called the Minnesota Patriots Council, which sought to wage war against the government. Among the group’s plans was to use ricin to kill deputy sheriffs, U.S. marshals and IRS agents. Two of the men were sentenced to two years and nine months; the longest sentence handed out was four years.
In 1995, a Tennessee neurologist was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for possessing ricin allegedly to kill a former boss, but the conviction was overturned on a technicality. A Wisconsin man was sentenced that year to 6 1/2 years for possessing ricin, which was added to an eight-year sentence for shooting his son.
The outcomes vary greatly partly because the nation’s little-used anti-terrorism laws are wide open to interpretation, said William Banks, law professor at Syracuse University. The prosecution in the Olsen case, he said, was likely “made stronger by the climate in which we live, the fear of terrorist attacks and biological agents.”
Amanda Olsen, whose fiance recently returned from Iraq, says she’s prepared to get married in August without her father walking her down the aisle. Luke Olsen, the second-oldest son, along with Weise, continue, through letters and phone calls, to try to clear Olsen’s name.
Carol Olsen has not seen her husband since before Thanksgiving. They’ve talked on the telephone about the appeal, which is expected to be reviewed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the summer or fall. She says that even if her husband wins, “he’ll be a broken man for a long time.”