Update: Ricin poison sent in letter to US Sen. Roger Wicker; suspect targeted

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

In this file photo, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., walks to a closed-door meeting with fellow Democrats at the Capitol.

Update 6:45 p.m.: An envelope addressed to Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi twice tested positive Tuesday for ricin, a potentially fatal poison, congressional officials said, heightening concerns about terrorism a day after a bombing killed three and left more than 170 injured at the Boston Marathon.

One senator, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, said authorities have a suspect in the fast-moving ricin case, but she did not say if an arrest had been made. She added the letter was from an individual who frequently writes lawmakers.

On Tuesday night, FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said initial field tests on the substance produced mixed results and that it is in the process of undergoing further analysis at an accredited laboratory. Only after that testing can a determination be made about whether the substance is ricin, Bresson said.

The U.S. Capitol Police, which is also investigating the case, declined to comment.

Late Tuesday, Wicker released a statement acknowledging the letter and said it was sent to his Washington office.

"This matter is part of an ongoing investigation by the United States Capitol Police and FBI," Wicker said. "I want to thank our law enforcement officials for their hard work and diligence in keeping those of us who work in the Capitol complex safe."

Terrance W. Gainer, the Senate sergeant-at-arms, said in an emailed message to Senate offices that the envelope to Wicker, a Republican, had no obviously suspicious outside markings and lacked a return address. It bore a postmark from Memphis, Tenn.

Mail from a broad swath of northern Mississippi, including the Memphis suburbs of DeSoto County, Miss., Tupelo, Oxford and the northern part of the Mississippi Delta region is processed and postmarked in Memphis, according to a Postal Service map. The Memphis center also processes mail for residents of western parts of Tennessee and eastern Arkansas.

Gainer said there was "no indication that there are other suspect mailings." Yet he urged caution, and also said the Senate off-site mail facility where the initial tests were performed on the letter will be closed for a few days while the investigation continues.

The letter was discovered at a mail processing plant in Prince George's County in suburban Maryland, according to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

Wicker, 61, was appointed to the Senate in 2007 and won election to a full term two years ago. He previously served a dozen years in the House.

He has a solidly conservative voting record, so much so that he drew notice last week when he voted to allow debate to begin on controversial gun legislation in the Senate. "I cast this vote at the request of the National Rifle Association, of which I am a member," he said in a statement at the time that added he has a 100 percent voting record in favor of Second Amendment rights.

Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters of the letter. Other lawmakers said they had been provided information by Gainer's office.

Milt Leitenberg, a University of Maryland bioterrorism expert, said ricin is a poison derived from the same bean that makes castor oil. According to a Homeland Security Department handbook, ricin is deadliest when inhaled. It is not contagious, but there is no antidote.

"Luckily, this was discovered at the processing center off premises," Durbin said. He said all mail to senators is "roasted, toasted, sliced and opened" before it ever gets to them.

One law enforcement official said evidence of ricin appeared on two preliminary field tests of the letter, although such results are not deemed conclusive without further testing. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation remains active.

The discovery evoked memories of the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when mail laced with anthrax began appearing in post offices, newsrooms and congressional offices.

That included letters sent to Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who was Senate majority leader, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Two Senate office buildings were closed during that investigation.

Overall, five people died and 17 others became ill. The FBI attributed the attack to a government scientist who committed suicide in 2008.

More immediately, though, the discovery came as lawmakers were demanding answers to the attacks in Boston a day earlier.

There was no evidence of a connection between the bombings and the letter addressed to Wicker.

Associated Press writers Andrew Miga, Seth Borenstein, Eric Tucker, Henry C. Jackson and Eileen Sullivan in Washington and Emily Wagster Pettus and Jeff Amy in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.

Previously: The Associated Press is reporting that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says a letter with the poison ricin or another poison has been sent to Sen. Roger Wicker.

The envelope, which tested positive for the deadly poison, was intercepted Tuesday afternoon at the U.S. Capitol's off-site mail facility in Washington, CNN reported.

Reid said he was told the letter was addressed to the office of Wicker, R-Mississippi. After the envelope tested positive in a first routine test, it was retested two more times, each time coming up positive, the law enforcement source said. The package was then sent to a Maryland lab for further testing, CNN reported.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports:

"Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, says they were in a classified briefing about Boston when they came in and told them about the letter. It was found at an off site mail processing facility and no one in the Capitol complex is in danger."

Landrieu said the poison in question was ricin.

"Ricin is a poison found naturally in castor beans," the CDC writes in its fact sheet. "If castor beans are chewed and swallowed, the released ricin can cause injury. Ricin can be made from the waste material left over from processing castor beans."

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said members were briefed that the substance had been found in a letter and a suspect has been identified, POLITICO reported:

McCaskill said the letter came from an individual who frequently writes to lawmakers. She wouldn’t identify the person but confirmed officials had identified someone.

McCaskill said state offices have been told what to look for if there are more letters containing the toxic substance.

KPCC is trying to get more information and will report it when we get it.

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