A white supremacist charged with possession of a biological weapon was stopped last January by a sheriff's deputy in Fannin County with a bag of “very dangerous and poisonous” seeds in his car. But the officer let him go with a warning.
Federal agents arrested William Christopher Gibbs nearly three weeks later for possession of ricin, a deadly chemical extracted from castor beans, after he showed up at Fannin Country Regional Hospital seeking help. His arrest prompted a massive federal response as dozens of federal agents poured into tiny North Georgia town of Morganton to assess the threat.
Contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Friday, Fannin County Sheriff Dane Kirby said he was aware of Gibbs' earlier encounter with his department, but he said his deputy had no grounds to arrest him at that time.
“At that point, he hadn’t violated the law," Kirby said.
Federal prosecutors described Gibbs' initial encounter with local authorities in a filing this week in U.S. District Court. According to the document, a deputy with the Fannin County Sheriff’s Office stopped Gibbs' Lincoln Town Car when he ran a stop sign in McCaysville, Ga., the afternoon of Jan. 14, 2017.
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“When the defendant stopped the vehicle, the passenger tossed something from the vehicle, exited the vehicle and removed items from the vehicle,” according to the filing.
Gibbs' passenger is not identified in the document, but it does state that all the activity raised the deputy’s “suspicion that there may be contraband in the vehicle.” Gibbs allegedly consented to a search of the car.
“While searching the car, deputy sheriff found a bag of seeds in the glove compartment,” the filing states. Gibbs allegedly identified them as the seeds of the angel’s trumpet, a toxic plant.
“The defendant explained that the seeds were very dangerous and poisonous,” the filing states, adding the deputy gave Gibbs “a verbal warning and allowed him to drive away.”
Gibbs showed up at the hospital on Feb. 2 seeking treatment. Hospital authorities called the police to investigate suspected exposure to ricin. Ricin is a deadly chemical extracted from castor beans sometimes called “poor man’s anthrax.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define ricin as a “terrorist or warfare agent” that can be distributed in a variety of ways, including through the air or in water. Untreated, exposure causes organ failure and can kill within three days.
FBI agent and an Army hazardous materials team responded and tested his car, finding traces of ricin and arresting Gibbs. Teams of agents then converged on nearby Morganton to test Gibb’s home for the toxin.
The court filing does not state what authorities believe Gibbs intended to do with the ricin. In the wake of the arrest, Sheriff Kirby said Gibbs had “just a small amount” of ricin "he had been experimenting with." Kirby did not mention the earlier traffic stop at the time.
After his arrest it was revealed Gibbs had associated himself online with the Creativity Movement, a small, largely internet-based white supremacist group. Gibbs posted racial slurs and photos of himself on a Creativity forum wearing clothing with the group's symbols.
Every part of the angel's trumpet plant is considered toxic, but it is not illegal to possess in Georgia. There have been attempts to regulate or ban the plant because of its reputation as a hallucinogen. Louisiana, for example, outlawed cultivation of it when it is grown specifically for human consumption.
Gibbs was not unknown to police at the time of the traffic stop. He was on probation for a 2010 burglary conviction. But Kirby said his deputy had no reason to further investigate the man.
“It does seem strange, but we live in a strange world,” he said. “Where do you go with something like that? The mere possession of something like that isn’t against the law.”
If convicted, Gibbs faces up to five years in prison. His attorney did not reply to a request seeking comment on the prosecution's most recent filing.