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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.”