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How the FBI Stopped a Murder by Ricin Poisoning

The phony pill sent by FBI agents to Le as part of the undercover dark web sting.
FBI Ricin Sting and Evidence
The shipment sent by the FBI to Cheng Le contained, among other things, a pill bottle holding a single phony ricin tablet.

A 22 year old Chinese national Cheng Le, living in New York City, was sentenced last month to 16 years in prison for attempting to acquire ricin, postal fraud, and identity theft in relation to a terrorism offense.

Le was convicted on August 27, 2015, following a four-day jury trial for attempting to order ricin through the so-called “dark web”.

Ricin is a highly potent and potentially fatal toxin with no known antidote. And the dark web includes a number of extensive, sophisticated, and widely used online criminal marketplaces that allow participants to buy and sell all kinds of illegal and often dangerous items, including drugs, firearms, and hazardous materials, like ricin.

“Through the Dark Web, Cheng Le attempted to acquire a lethal toxin.  In Le’s own words, established at trial, he was looking for ‘simple and easy death pills’ and ways to commit ‘100% risk-free’ murder,” commented Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. “Thanks to the FBI, the NYPD, and the Postal Inspection Service, Le’s deadly plot was thwarted and he has been incapacitated by a lengthy term in federal prison.”

Le’s conviction marked the that a defendant had been convicted at trial in the Southern District of New York of attempting to possess a biological toxin for use as a weapon or of aggravated identity theft during and in relation to a terrorism offense.

“Cheng Le attempted to acquire ricin for use as a lethal weapon, and used a stolen identity to do so,” said Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin. “Le sought a ‘risk-free’ way to murder an individual, but thanks to the efforts of law enforcement, his lethal plans were thwarted and the deadly toxin was kept out of his hands.”

FBI Ricin Sting Phony Pill
The phony pill sent by FBI agents to Le as part of the undercover dark web sting.

In early December 2014, Le contacted a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) online covert employee (OCE) on a particular Dark Web marketplace using an encrypted messaging service.  The OCE had taken over the Dark Web identity from another individual who had a reputation for selling lethal poisons. After making contact with the OCE, Le inquired, “this might sound blunt but do you sell ricin?”

Following that initial contact, Le exchanged a series of messages with the OCE concerning his efforts to purchase ricin.  During these messages, Le confirmed his understanding of the lethal nature of ricin, revealed his intent to resell the ricin to at least one secondary buyer, proposed that the OCE conceal the ricin in a single pill in an otherwise ordinary bottle of pills, and indicated a desire to obtain more ricin in the future.

Le’s messages to the OCE included the following:

  • “If [the ricin’s] good quality, I’ve already had buyers lining up.”
  • “Does ricin have antidote? Last I check there isn’t one, isn’t it?”
  • “Injection can be difficult to pull off. Ricin doesn’t work immediately. You wouldn’t expect the target to not fight back after being jabbed.”
  • “The client would like to know . . . if it is wise to use ricin on someone who is hospitalized. . . . Injection will leave needle holes on the body which could be found in regular forensic examination. But hospitalized people already have needles in them so it wouldn’t be suspicious. Thing is, would ricin make the death look like someone succumbed to the injuries after an accident and didn’t make it through? In that case then, a little anethestical [sic] gas in the target’s car, get him drowsy when driving, get into an accident, and then kill him in the hospital bed.”
  • “I probably told you this before, about mixing one and only one toxic pill into a bottle of normal pills. They all look identical. And as the target takes the medicine every day, sooner or later he’d ingest that poisonous pill and die. Even if there is a murder investigation, they won’t find any more toxin. 100% Risk Free.”
  • “If you can make them into simple and easy death pills, they’d become bestsellers.”
  • “I’ll be trying out new methods in the future. After all, it is death itself we’re selling here, and the more risk-free, the more efficient we can make it, the better.”
  • “Also, besides that one bottle of pills with one poisonous pill in there, can you send some extra loose powder/liquid ricin? I’d like to test something.”

Moreover, during these exchanges, Le further revealed to the OCE that he had a specific victim in mind: “someone middle-aged.  Weight around 200 lbs.”

On December 18, 2014, Le directed the OCE to send a quantity of ricin addressed to the name of an individual whose stolen identity Le had assumed at a particular postal box in Manhattan.  On December 22, 2014, the FBI prepared a mock shipment of ricin that was consistent with Le’s request to the OCE.  The Sham Shipment included a fake “ricin” tablet concealed in a pill bottle, and a quantity of loose fake “ricin” powder.  The next day, the Sham Shipment was delivered to the Postal Box.  Le, wearing latex gloves, retrieved the Sham Shipment, opened it, and took the contents to his apartment.

When FBI agents entered Le’s apartment to arrest Le and to search the apartment, pursuant to a search warrant, they saw the Pill Bottle open in his apartment.  The agents also recovered from Le’s apartment an envelope containing castor seeds, from which ricin can be produced.  The agents further observed that Le’s computer was open to the online account that he had used to communicate with the OCE and to Le’s personal email account.

Le was convicted after trial of one count of attempting to possess a biological toxin for use as a weapon, one count of using a fictitious name in furtherance of unlawful business involving the mail, and one count of aggravated identity theft during and in relation to a terrorism offense.  In addition to the prison term, Le was sentenced to five years of supervised release.

In pronouncing Le’s sentence, Judge Nathan described his conduct as “a horrible, serious, and quite terrifying offense.”

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