It seems like you can hardly pick up your paper anymore without reading about ricin-tainted letters being sent all over the place. (By "paper" we mean "phone, to read the web.") But not all ricin stories garner the same level of attention. Having reviewed three recent examples, we would like to offer these tips for those wanting to get media coverage.
DO: Involve famous people or impersonators thereof.
It seems likely that the most recent high-profile letter-sending, mailed to Michael Bloomberg and Barack Obama, was prompted by a spat between an actress and her soon-to-be-ex-husband. Shannon Rogers Guess accused her husband of sending the letters and claims to have found castor beans — from which ricin is extracted — in the fridge. Her husband says that she is the real sender, and that he doesn't use credit cards. (That is his defense.)
The point being: Guess is also an actress who has been in a number of things, including Walking Dead. (Her IMDB page notes that she donated bone marrow to a small child; it's not clear if the page's inclusion of this factoid predates the ricin accusations.) The case had already garnered attention, but the inclusion of a C-lebrity certainly doesn't hurt.
Likewise Paul Kevin Curtis, the man initially arrested for sending letters to Obama in April. Curtis will go down in history as the Elvis impersonator who sent ricin-tainted letters. This isn't fair, though. He didn't send them. That honor apparently belongs to James Everett Dutschke, who was indicted today by a grand jury for sending the letters. Dutschke is a Wayne Newton impersonator.
DON'T: Think being a janitor alone will cut it.
Before being laid off (perhaps because he was convinced that the hospital which employed him was involved in organ smuggling) Curtis worked as a janitor. That wasn't enough to get Matthew Buquet on the radar of the media.
Buquet was arrested last month for mailing ricin-tainted letters to a judge. He was indicted on those charges less than two weeks later. No one noticed.
DO: Send the letter to someone that people have heard of.
"Fred Van Sickle" is a pretty good name. It is not, however, a good enough name to carry the district court judge that bears it into the public consciousness. So when Buquet targeted Van Sickle, the reaction was very different than the letters sent by Dutschke and Guess/her husband. Those letters targeted, in increasing order of general interest: the head of a non-profit, a Mississippi judge, Senator Roger Wicker, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and President Obama. Everything from Wicker up was enough to raise an eyebrow.
DON'T: Be from the Pacific Northwest.
The locus of intrigue in ricin-letter-sending appears to be the Deep South. Curtis and Dutschke are from Mississippi. The sender of the Bloomberg letter, Guess/husband or not, were from Texas. Buquet is from Spokane, Washington, which conveys a different sensibility. It isn't blinding, heat-induced fury; it's rainy-day boredom. That doesn't get people very excited.
DO: Mail the letter around the time of another major news story.
The timing of Dutschke's alleged letter was remarkable. Sent on April 8, it was caught by the Senate mail room and the president's screeners shortly after the Boston bombing. Had it not been for that coincidence (and it was a coincidence), it's possible that the story wouldn't have received nearly as much attention. Likewise the Guess/husband letters. Sent to Bloomberg and the head of a non-profit he started to advocate for new gun control measures, the letters came while the gun debate was still fresh in the public's mind.
In each case, people were able to quickly imagine some shadowy, intrigue-rife plot underlying the letters. Until the letters themselves became public, at which point the weird references and spelling errors indicated that there probably wasn't a criminal mastermind at work.
DON'T: Expect anyone to suffer any ailment besides minor inconvenience.
Ricin can kill. It has killed; a Bulgarian dissident was killed after an agent stabbed him in the leg with an umbrella equipped with a pellet of ricin.
Injection is an effective means of poisoning with ricin. Inhalation is a much less effective means. In none of the recent cases did anyone inhale the ricin, though some New York police officers were taken to the hospital after showing symptoms. (They're all fine.)
In fact, in most cases, the letters never got to the intended recipients. The head of Bloomberg's gun group got his. No one else did. Sending letters that 1) have a very low probability of having any health effect and 2) have a very high probability of being intercepted is not a good strategy for inflicting any damage.
It can, however, be a good way to get media attention. See above.
Photo: Curtis talks to the media. (AP)
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.