A new round of laboratory testing showed Tuesday that a Mesa man didn’t make ricin in his apartment after all. But his efforts to do so did expose a flaw in homeland security.
The state health department had to conduct the new tests on substances taken from Casey Cutler because the wrong chemicals were used Sunday on three samples that tested positive for ricin toxins, officials said.
The positive tests led to Cutler being charged with possessing or producing a biotoxin for use as a weapon.
"The 15 test samples that we reran (Tuesday) all came back negative for ricin toxins," said David Engelthaler, state epidemiologist.
The episode also exposed a flaw in the Laboratory Response Network, a national network of labs that responds to bioterrorism and chemical terrorism, Engelthaler said.
"An important thing we’ve learned is there was a chink in the national armor," he said. "It was found and it is being fixed."
Ricin is a powerful poison made from the beans of the castor plant.
The new test results don’t let Cutler, 25, off the hook, though.
Joseph Welty, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in court Tuesday, before the new test results were announced, that the government would prosecute Cutler for his attempts to make the ricin even if the test results proved negative.
Attempting to make ricin carries the same punishment as actually making it, Welty said in U.S. District Court.
Cutler could potentially receive a life in prison if convicted.
Cutler was arrested Saturday and told the FBI and Mesa police that he made the ricin to use in self-defense after he was attacked in April by three men.
Investigators searched his apartment Saturday at 1030 S. Dobson Road. They found two containers he said were filled with ricin and took a vial he wore around his neck.
After conducting initial tests on the containers and vial, the Arizona Department of Health Services reviewed its work and found it used test substances that should have been disposed of in 2003 because they were known to cause false positives, Engelthaler said.
Arizona obtained the test substances from the Colorado Department of Health Lab, which like Arizona is part of a national lab network that gets supplies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Arizona thought it was getting updated testing substances, Engelthaler said.
But "for reasons unknown," Colorado hadn’t disposed of the pre-2003 testing substances and sent them to Arizona’s lab.
"It was assumed that we received what we requested," Engelthaler said. The CDC flew part of its limited supply of newer testing substances into Arizona on Tuesday. The newer test substances haven’t produced false positives yet, Engelthaler said. The CDC will look into how the error occurred, he said.
Cutler’s attorney, Jon Sands, said Cutler is "very" remorseful, but grateful the government took the extra steps to confirm the toxicity of the substances. "He’s glad there is not a public health risk," Sands said. Cutler has a long history of mental illness and is on disability because of it, a circumstance that could affect his sentencing if convicted, Sands said.
"He has a whole litany of mental health history that will be brought out at the appropriate time," he said. Cutler’s next court appearance is Friday for detention and preliminary hearings.