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No clear terror threat in cyanide case

by Jeff Latzke
AP [1]

The FBI claims a Texas man told an infor­mant he had a 25-gal­lon drum with enough cyanide inside to “kill a city.” What he appar­ent­ly did­n’t have was a plan to car­ry out an attack.

Jef­frey Don Detrix­he, 38, of Hig­gins, Texas, was arrest­ed this week in south­east­ern Okla­homa on a com­plaint of pos­ses­sion or trans­fer of a chem­i­cal weapon fol­low­ing an FBI sting in which an infor­mant claimed he saw Detrix­he bring home an approx­i­mate­ly 4‑foot tall drum with cyanide in it.

The infor­mant, with the FBI’s back­ing, con­jured up a fake buy­er tied to the white suprema­cist Aryan Broth­er­hood and arranged for a sup­posed sale of the cyanide in exchange for $10,000, a ther­mal imager and an AK-47 auto­mat­ic assault rifle, accord­ing to an FBI affi­davit filed to secure Detrix­he’s arrest war­rant.

The arrest of Detrix­he on Mon­day near Idabel was “real­ly at some of the ear­li­est pre­ven­ta­tive stages” to stop any ter­ror­ist activ­i­ty, said research and pro­gram direc­tor James O. Ellis III of the Memo­r­i­al Insti­tute for the Pre­ven­tion of Ter­ror­ism in Okla­homa City.

“It was mere­ly traf­fick­ing in the sub­stance. It would be dif­fer­ent if he had a ful­ly formed plot that it would soon be weaponized,” said Ellis, whose orga­ni­za­tion was cre­at­ed after the 1995 Okla­homa City fed­er­al build­ing bomb­ing.

“In this case, it was caught so ear­ly so it’s hard to attribute clear­ly what would have come out of it,” Ellis added.

The FBI and fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tors refused to say how much cyanide was recov­ered dur­ing a search of Detrix­he’s home, except that it was enough to do dam­age.

“On the one hand I want the pub­lic alert­ed. On the oth­er hand, I don’t want them fright­ened,” said U.S. Attor­ney Shel­don Sper­ling in Musko­gee. Sper­ling’s office briefly han­dled the case before Detrix­he waived his ini­tial court hear­ing and was ordered Wednes­day to be tak­en back to Amar­il­lo, Texas, where the charges orig­i­nat­ed.

“This is a dan­ger­ous, dan­ger­ous com­pound. I think the FBI agents appro­pri­ate­ly took this very, very seri­ous­ly,” Sper­ling said.

The affi­davit writ­ten by FBI Spe­cial Agent John Whit­worth alleges that Detrix­he gave the infor­mant 77 grams of sodi­um cyanide that was sup­posed to be a sam­ple for the sup­posed buy­er to deter­mine whether to pur­chase the rest. For that sam­ple, Detrix­he alleged­ly accept­ed $450 — a small sum com­pared to the price he want­ed for the rest.

A con­vic­tion for intent to sell a chem­i­cal weapon is pun­ish­able by up to life in prison, Sper­ling said. In 2004, anoth­er Texas man — 63-year-old William Krar — plead­ed guilty to pos­sess­ing 800 grams of cyanide, along with a stock­pile of weapons includ­ing machine guns and bombs and was sen­tenced to 11 years in prison.

Cyanide is a dead­ly chem­i­cal that stops the body from pro­cess­ing oxy­gen, effec­tive­ly caus­ing death by asphyx­i­a­tion.

Sper­ling said it can be used for less men­ac­ing pur­pos­es, includ­ing putting a fin­ish on bronze sculp­tures, help­ing emer­gency respon­ders quick­ly low­er a per­son­’s blood pres­sure and exter­mi­nat­ing pests.

But it’s more com­mon­ly known as a dead­ly chem­i­cal used by the Nazis dur­ing the Holo­caust. His­to­ry also blames cyanide in the poi­son­ing death of Rasputin in rev­o­lu­tion­ary Rus­sia, and Adolf Hitler’s wife, Eva Braun, com­mit­ted sui­cide by tak­ing cyanide.

“There were no appar­ent legit­i­mate uses that the defen­dant him­self was engaged in,” Sper­ling said.

Fed­er­al pub­lic defend­er Julia O’Con­nell, Detrix­he’s court-appoint­ed attor­ney, did not return tele­phone mes­sages seek­ing com­ment. Detrix­he was expect­ed to have a new attor­ney appoint­ed after he is extra­dit­ed to Amar­il­lo, unless he hires one of his own. Assis­tant U.S. Attor­ney Christy Drake said she expect­ed Detrix­he’s deten­tion hear­ing and pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing to be next week.

Jim Har­mon, who works with the Chem­i­cal, Bio­log­i­cal and Ener­getic Agent Research Group at Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty, said cyanide is not as potent as some oth­er nerve agents but can still cause almost imme­di­ate death in high quan­ti­ties or con­cen­tra­tion.

“This is just one of those things you don’t want to play with,” said Har­mon, a physics pro­fes­sor who will use 1/1000th of a gram or less of the sub­stance dur­ing lab­o­ra­to­ry exper­i­ments.

Ellis said cyanide has been tied to numer­ous plots in the U.S. over the years, includ­ing the deaths of sev­en Chica­go-area res­i­dents who took cyanide-laced Tylenol in 1982. More recent­ly, New York police claimed they’d thwart­ed an al-Qai­da plot to spread cyanide gas in the sub­way sys­tem.

Ellis was­n’t sure what kind of death toll a 25-gal­lon drum of cyanide could bring.

“It takes high­er con­cen­tra­tions,” Ellis said. “It’s not as quick to kill and it takes a lit­tle more logis­ti­cal sup­port to have as sig­nif­i­cant impact as a nerve agent.”