It’s often said that fact is stranger than fiction, so I pose this seemingly ridiculous question to you– What do a martial arts instructor, an Elvis impersonator and the deadly chemical agent ricin have in common?
The answer has been in the news recently – All three are linked to the attempted murders of a U.S. senator and the President.
Earlier this month, an envelope addressed to Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, allegedly contained the deadly substance ricin. And just a day later, a similar letter addressed to President Obama was discovered and it also allegedly contained a white granular powder that was later identified as ricin. Fortunately, both letters were opened off-site and they never got close to the intended targets.
As the investigations progressed, it was revealed that an Elvis impersonator was connected to the crime. Further evidence indicated that the accused might have been the target of a frame that resulted from a long-standing feud with a martial arts instructor. It’s now believed that this second person may be the real perpetrator and is being charged with developing and possessing ricin, and then attempting to use it as a deadly weapon. If convicted, this martial arts instructor could face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.
Ricin is one of the most poisonous chemicals on Earth. It’s a highly lethal poison found naturally in castor beans and there is no known antidote.
The chemical Ricin is a naturally occurring protein from the castor oil plant. It’s extracted from the waste matter (called the “mash”) left over from processing castor beans into castor oil. Ricin can be made in the form of a powder, a mist, a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water.
It’s important to point out that commercial castor oil contains none of the toxic proteins from the mash and is a safe product to use.
The medium lethal oral dose of ricin is a little over 3mg. That means a dose of pure ricin about the size of a few grains of table salt can kill an adult human. If the chemical is injected or inhaled, the dose is even lower, about 1.5mg to kill a 150-lb adult.
As with most chemicals, various factors determine how sick a person will become when exposed, and if it will be fatal. These include how much ricin a person is exposed to, how long the exposure lasts, and what exposure method is used. For instance, inhalation and injection are almost always fatal, but ingestion may only make a person extremely sick, especially if medical support is rapidly provided.
The purity of ricin can also significantly affect how lethal a dose is. When the chemical is purified by special, technically advanced processes, the substance is much more deadly than “back kitchen” processing.
Ricin kills by infecting our cellular structures and blocking their ability to synthesize their own proteins. When a cell cannot make protein, key bodily functions shut down and progressive organ failure usually results in death. Even when a person survives ricin poisoning, permanent organ damage often results.
The progression to death is extremely unpleasant. Usually, humans exposed to a lethal oral dose will experience severe vomiting and diarrhea within six hours of exposure and this results in serious dehydration. Eventually, the kidneys, liver and pancreas fail. Death follows soon after.
Inhalation of ricin, on the other hand, produces different effects since the poison interacts with other body parts. Inhaled ricin causes a vicious, bloody cough and the lungs fill with fluid. Eventually, the lungs become so fluid filled that the victim loses the ability to breathe. In effect, the person drowns in the body’s own fluids.
Lethal doses of ricin that are injected usually result in intense flu-like symptoms, swelling around the injection site, and eventual progressive organ failure as the poison circulates throughout the body.
Death from inhalation or injection occurs in about three to five days after contact, but it could be as rapid as 36 to 72 hours. And the death is an agonizing one.
Unfortunately, various techniques for making this poison are readily available on the Internet, and periodically this method of murder is used in terror plots against government or corporate personnel. Therefore, murder by ricin can be categorized as a murder “ripped from the headlines”, making it an interesting and often used lethal weapon on TV, in the movies and in novels.
Of course, if you’ve been reading my past blogs, there are much more imaginative methods for killing off characters in your novels, and I’ll discuss some of them in future blogs.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!