Post-9/11 hysteria blamed in poison case

Man accused of plotting against wife convicted under anti-terrorist law

April 20, 2004|By Tomas Alex Tizon | Tomas Alex Tizon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SPOKANE, Wash. - There's no question Ken Olsen made the stuff. He brought some castor beans to his work cubicle, put them through a coffee grinder and mixed in a common solvent. He then poured the concoction through a paper filter.

Within minutes, Olsen, a respected software engineer for a high-tech company and former Scoutmaster, had in his possession a few drops of ricin, one of the world's most lethal toxins.

From the start, Olsen, who had no record of violence, said he never intended harm. He said he made the poison just to see if he could. Family and friends describe him as a chronic daydreamer and "computer geek" given to flights of fanciful Internet research.

Investigators took a much darker view. When he made the ricin, Olsen was involved in an affair with a masseuse. Authorities theorized that he was plotting to kill his wife of 28 years, Carol, to be with his mistress of two years, Debora Davis.

The presence of ricin violated federal law, and prosecutors, lacking evidence to charge Olsen with attempted murder, instead charged him with a little-used law intended for terrorists: possession of a biological agent with the intent to use it as a weapon.

At the time of Olsen's arrest on June 19, 2002, the nation was recovering from the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Anthrax was a new word in the American vernacular, and the nation was vigilant for another attack.

Spokane residents froze in front of televisions - much as they did on 9/11 - as FBI agents and bio-terrorism specialists swarmed Olsen's home.

"They [the media] were saying there were chemicals that could kill thousands," said Frank Cikutovich, a longtime resident and an attorney. "People were scared. The community was ready to lynch him."

Olsen, 49, became one of only a handful of people in the United States convicted of ricin possession. He was given a 13-year, 9-month sentence, the longest ever imposed for that crime. Today, Olsen, who has declined all interviews on the advice of his lawyer, sits in a federal prison in Lompoc, Calif.

Meanwhile, his wife and mistress have formed an unlikely alliance. As Olsen's lawyers prepare to file an appeal this month, the two women and other supporters are raising the volume on their claim that Olsen was swept into prison by post-9/11 hysteria and an overzealous Justice Department.

Olsen's advocates question the validity of using federal anti-terrorism statutes to prosecute a local, nonterror-related case - a situation that could arise again and again as police agencies step up their efforts against illegal toxins. Legal scholars say it is a legitimate question.

The laws used against Olsen, part of the 1989 U.S. Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act, were designed to make it easier to convict terrorists. They require lower standards of proof and, in general, impose harsher sentences. It is an area of law that is largely untested.

Had Olsen been charged with attempted murder, prosecutors would not only have had to identify a target, but also prove that he took steps to carry out the killing - neither of which lawyers were required to do in Olsen's trial. All they had to prove was that he possessed the ricin with the intent to use it.

Under federal law, attempted murder carries a maximum sentence of 20 years; possession of ricin carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

"When this is over, I don't know if Ken and I will stay married," Carol said. "But I know Ken, I know his personality, I know his character. I've known him for over 30 years. He wouldn't have harmed me. What's happened is a mistake that's gone too far."

Davis, the former mistress, called the trial "a travesty."

"This is an innocent man in jail. He wasn't going to kill his wife. There's no way," Davis said. The investigators "had their minds made up before they came to me. No matter what I said, it didn't matter."

The prosecutors in the case, who maintain they did nothing wrong, admit that 9/11 brought changes that may have come to bear on Olsen's case.

"I wouldn't discount the fact that some people might have said, `Oh my God, look what we have on our hands,'" said Tom Rice, head of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Spokane. "But if the criticism is that we're doing our job better since 9/11, then good, we're doing our job better."

"Ken was a computer geek," Carol says. When he wasn't tinkering in the garage or leading Boy Scouts on a hike, he was in front of his computer.

The trouble began Aug. 21, 2001, when a co-worker at Agilent Technologies, Inc. found at a printer an 80-page document on how to make a bomb.

The co-worker took the document to supervisors, who traced it to Olsen's computer. Company investigators examined his Internet logs and discovered Olsen had spent more than a year researching explosives and all kinds of poisons. They found books in his cubicle on how to kill people without leaving a trace, and a piece of paper with calculations of dosages for a 150-pound person - the approximate weight of his wife.

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