If ever there was an open-and-shut case, this appeared to be it.
In February 2017, William Christopher Gibbs showed up in a Fannin County emergency room seeking treatment for exposure to ricin, a powerful toxin derived from castor beans. According to authorities, a search of his car turned up a bottle that tested positive for the substance and federal authorities charged Gibbs, then 27, with illegal possession of a biological agent.
From the look of it, Gibbs seemed destined for federal prison, but last fall Gibb’s federal public defender noticed something. The federal law under which Gibbs had been charged relied on a list embedded in federal regulations of unlawful chemical, viruses and other deadly agents. That list did not include ricin.
Changes to federal law and regulations more than a decade ago created a disconnect and now the law points to the wrong regulation. Gibbs’s public defender discovered the discrepancy and U.S. District Court Judge Richard Story agreed to drop the charges. The prosecution objected, but Story said Congress had “ample opportunity” to correct the error and didn’t.
Now Washington is moving to fix the error that allowed Gibbs to escape the federal rap. Legislation is making its way through Congress to clarify that ricin, a toxin favored by homegrown terrorists because it is so easy to make, is illegal to possess.
“In 2004, changes to federal law unintentionally put public safety at risk, via technical amendments that inadvertently let criminals get away with possessing deadly toxins,” said U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, co-sponsor of H.R. 1986.
The bill, which is in the House Judiciary Committee, “will close this loophole and keep people safe by ensuring offenders convicted of unlawfully possessing deadly toxins — such as ricin — face justice,” Collins said.
A similar bill, sponsored by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, has already passed the Senate and also is in the House Judiciary Committee. Grassley said the bill is a “technical” fix to clarify toxins already outlawed. Federal law enforcement brought the issue to Grassley in hopes of getting the problem addressed, and the Gibbs case was one reason why.
“It will help law enforcement and the courts protect against future biological attacks and bring perpetrators to justice,” Grassley said.
Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said because of ricin’s connections with white supremacists and anti-government militias, it is important that Congress correct the problem.
“Because ricin is relatively easy to make and yet intensely deadly, it is really important that the feds do something about it,” she said. “It really is a biological weapon.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ricin poisoning is almost always intentional. The toxin is a waste product created from mashing castor beans to extract castor oil.
Ricin can be delivered in a variety of ways, including as a powder or mist. Infamously, Bulgarian dissident novelist Georgi Markov was assassinated in 1978 when he was stabbed in the leg by an umbrella, which deposited a ricin pellet under his skin.
Because it is relatively easy to obtain, ricin has become popular as a poison of choice for extremist groups in the United States. In 2014, a jury convicted two north Georgia men in a plot to kill federal agents and judges in Atlanta.
More recently, authorities evacuated a Minneapolis apartment complex across from the University of Minnesota after initial test found evidence of ricin in a student’s apartment. The FBI said the student “may have been intentionally handling the material.”
Gibbs caused a similar uproar in 2017 when he sought treatment for ricin exposure. Hazmat crews were called in from surrounding jurisdictions and federal authorities swooped in and cordoned off the home in tiny Morganton, Ga., where Gibbs had been staying.
Following his arrest, Gibbs’s social media accounts revealed connections with a white supremacist “religion” known as Creativity, which reveres white people as “nature’s highest creation” and advocates for a racial holy war.
Despite the ruling dropping federal charges, Gibbs remains in jail on state charges of possession of a destructive device, a felony that carries a prison term of between 10 and 20 years, if convicted. State authorities also have removed first offender protections from an earlier burglary charge, which could add to his prison time.
Gibbs has been filing challenges to his continued incarceration for months while acting as his own lawyer, but he is being represented on the state charges by a new public defender.
Beirich said the problem with the federal charge is “horrible,” but she can understand why the judge agreed to drop the federal charge. The solution now is legislative, she said.
“They should close the loop on this for sure,” she said.
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