By MIKE DONOGHUE
A former Wake Robin resident charged with possessing the poison ricin at the Shelburne retirement community last fall was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Burlington last Thursday to five years on federal probation.
Betty Miller, who tested the ricin on her Wake Robin neighbors, pleaded guilty in May to a felony charge of knowingly producing, storing and possessing ricin last October and November.
The discovery that Miller, 71, had the lethal substance at her apartment caused a major scare at Wake Robin and prompted a significant response by local, state and federal public safety and hazardous materials agencies.
Miller’s probation terms include her enrollment in an intensive mental health counseling program at Arcadia Hospital in Bangor, Maine, for at least nine weeks, according to Judge Christina Reiss.
The judge told Miller that counseling would play a major role in her time on probation. Miller has received treatment in the past from the Bangor facility and will have follow-up care after she is discharged.
Reiss told Miller she had shown “callousness” in her conduct with the ricin.
“It is considered a weapon of mass destruction,” Reiss said. “You knew it was deadly.”
The judge said Miller’s conduct was in sharp contrast to reports showing she was a productive member of society, raised two children, and was an engaged loving mother. She has no known criminal history.
The Associated Press reported following the arrest that Miller had been a longtime New Hampshire resident after marrying Dr. Joseph Miller in 1976. The couple had two children, including a son who lived in Vermont. After retiring, Joseph Miller served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives as a Democrat from Durham, the AP reported.
Miller’s pre-trial detention – 285 days before she was released – did not count toward the sentence, according to Reiss. The judge told Miller she needed to be jailed after her arrest to protect the public, but now probation with counseling appeared appropriate.
Reiss rejected the plea agreement reached in May that called for a sentence of time served followed by three years of federal supervised release. Reiss said she believed Miller, who has an extensive mental health history, needs extra monitoring time that a probation sentence would provide.
Reiss said her decision to reject the original agreement came after a recent meeting with the lawyers in the case. The meeting was apparently a private closed-door session in Reiss’ chambers – it was unannounced and never posted on the daily court schedule.
While the terms of probation and supervised release can often be the same, if Miller violates probation she could face up to five years in prison. A violation of supervised release could have resulted in a shorter potential prison term, Reiss said in explaining her decision.
Miller, who had a stroke about 18 months ago and walks with a wooden cane, has been held at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington since shortly after the November incident. Authorities learned about the ricin when Miller became sick and was hospitalized for a couple days at UVM Medical Center.
The judge agreed to have her held in jail until Monday morning when she was to be released into the care of her brother, Walter Harris. He was to take her to Maine for the outpatient counseling program and records showed she was no longer at the jail Monday evening. The counseling program runs five days a week, seven to eight hours per day, according to defense lawyer Paul Volk.
Judge Reiss also imposed a $10,000 fine, which apparently will be paid from two trust accounts mentioned in a sentencing memo by the defense. Volk said Miller’s trust account has already made a $90,000 restitution payment to Wake Robin. The facility underwent a significant cleaning operation following the incident to ensure that all traces of the substance were removed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugenia A. P. Cowles said after the court hearing that Wake Robin had claimed about $82,000 for decontamination.
Miller made the ricin in her kitchen from castor beans taken from plants growing on the Wake Robin property, Shelburne Police said. She lived alone in a ground-floor unit of a three-story building known as Hornbeam at the retirement facility.
“The seriousness of Betty Miller’s crime cannot be overstated. With an apparent total disregard for the lives of her neighbors, she repeatedly produced and possessed ricin in her apartment, and tested it on the people around her,” Cowles wrote in her sentencing memo.
Cowles wrote that Miller was mixing the ricin into food and beverages, but found it did not appear to sicken the other residents. In one case Miller put ricin into a friend’s tea; the friend became somewhat ill, but later recovered, Cowles noted. That is when Miller tried to produce stronger ricin and ultimately planned to use it to take her own life, Cowles wrote.
Miller’s unnamed victim, Cowles noted, requested that the court provide Miller with mental health treatment going forward. Miller could have been imprisoned for up to five years and fined up to $250,000.
However, federal sentencing guidelines are advisory, and Judge Reiss said extenuating circumstances, including mental health issues, justified a significant departure. Reiss said she considered the risk that Miller’s actions posed, and the cleanup required afterward. But she said she also weighed Miller’s acceptance of responsibility by admitting her guilt and avoiding a costly trial.
The town of Shelburne did not file a claim for any reimbursement related to the response and investigation in the case by Shelburne Police, Fire and Rescue departments. “We were not aware of any possible reimbursement option,” said Interim Town Manager Lee Krohn.
Other agencies that worked on the case included the FBI, the Vermont State Police, the Vermont Hazardous Material Response Team, and the Vermont National Guard Civil Support Team.