FBI investigating ricin incident at McCarthy Hall

By:
03/20/2014

A white powdery substance found in a student’s dorm room on the sixth floor of McCarthy residence hall tested positive for ricin, according to an email from Georgetown Police Chief Jay Gruber sent Wednesday afternoon.

The case is being handled by the FBI, which has identified and taken in a student “subject” for questioning. Gruber said that there is “no immediate threat” to students and that no ricin exposure has been reported.

The University was alerted to the possibility of ricin in a dorm room by a student source on Monday night. The Voice spoke to this person, a friend of the subject, who said the subject confided in the source that he possibly “intended to use the substance on another student.”

According to this source, after reporting the details to Counseling and Psychiatric Services but seeing no action, the source went to Darnall Community Director Brynton Lett, the Community Director on duty at the time, who alerted GUPD to the possible threat. The source was not authorized to speak on the matter and did not want to issue any on-the-record statement while the investigation is active.

According to a community-wide email sent by Gruber on Tuesday morning, after this situation developed overnight, the University contacted D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services. While initial field tests for biological agents, which do not include ricin, were negative, subsequent lab tests for ricin came back positive.

“It’s very unlikely that [the lab test] is a false positive at this point,” FBI spokeswoman Jackie Maguire told the Voice.

Maguire confirmed the FBI has identified a subject in the investigation. She declined to identify the subject, saying the FBI will only release his name in the event that it presses charges. She said that terrorist activity is not suspected.

Ricin is a naturally-occurring poison found in castor beans and is capable of killing an adult human with less than a 2 milligram dose. According to Paul Keim, acting chair for the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, ricin is the most commonly used biological weapon in the United States. He indicated, however, it is usually “done in a manner that is ineffective. … But its use is a very serious federal offense.”

After the powdery substance was found, the University evacuated 21 residents who occupied the 13 rooms on the east side of McCarthy Hall. According to an email forwarded to the Voice, at approximately 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, Director of Residential Education Ed Gilhool told residents they had to leave their rooms by 11:30 a.m. “out of an abundance of caution.”

These residents were not permitted to return to their rooms for 30 hours and were provided with overnight accommodations at the Savoy Hotel.

Resident of the sixth floor of McCarthy Josh Tsung (COL ’15) was not displaced and saw much of the FBI’s investigation on the floor. He described the initial investigation as low activity and observed “just one policeman sitting out in a chair.”

“It wasn’t until 11:30 [a.m.], actually, that everything happened with the FBI,” Tsung said. “I think the hazard control people came and surveyed the area and asked the police to notify everybody to move.”

Tsung saw FBI officials in hazardous materials suits near and inside the subject’s room. He said police and FBI officials were on the floor for four hours and estimated 50 people were on the floor at one time.

At 3:20 p.m. on Wednesday, ResLife gave the students the all-clear and let them return to their rooms. Throughout the incident, the University stressed there was no immediate danger to any students.

“In an abundance of caution, the University secured contractors who specialize in the decontamination of biological threat agents to clean the room under investigation where the contained substance was recovered,” Gruber wrote in the community-wide email.

Gruber also wrote that anyone poisoned by ricin would have to have shown severe symptoms within 24 hours of poisoning. “This window has passed and there are no reports consistent with ricin exposure,” Gruber wrote.

“We [the FBI] did swabs of all sorts of surfaces in the area and those all came back negative,” Maguire added.

As the Voice went to press, the subject in the case had not been charged with a crime and has not been identified as a suspect in the investigation of a crime.

Additional reporting by Shalina Chatlani, Isabel Echarte, and Connor Jones

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article reported that the University was alerted to the possibility of ricin in a dorm room by a student source on Tuesday night. It was reported Monday night.

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