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Baby Food With Threat Notes Also Contained Ricin

Tests on jars purchased in Irvine detect concentrations too small to be perilous. Police want to question a man possibly linked.

July 29, 2004|Jeff Gottlieb and Mai Tran | Times Staff Writers

Pieces of mashed castor bean containing tiny amounts of the deadly poison ricin were found in baby food that Orange County parents turned in earlier this year after discovering threatening notes tucked inside the containers, authorities said Wednesday.

Officials with the federal Food and Drug Administration said the bean particles had been placed in the Gerber's banana yogurt dessert bought at an Irvine supermarket. All castor beans contain trace amounts of ricin. No concentrated form of the poison was found.

Neither of the two babies who ate the food became ill. If the children had eaten an entire jarful, they probably would have suffered intestinal problems, such as diarrhea, an FDA physician said. He said it was unlikely that either child would have died.

The notes said the food was contaminated and that the person who ate it would die, Irvine Police Chief David Maggard said. They also referred by name to an Irvine police officer and implied that he placed the notes in the jars, Maggard said.

Authorities said they want to talk to Charles Dewey Cage, 47, but offered little information about him or his connection to the case.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said Cage was in the Ralphs on Alton Parkway "at a relevant time." Rackauckas said he "wouldn't characterize him as a suspect or a person of interest"; a news release called him a witness.

Rackauckas described Cage as a transient and said his last known residence was Irvine. Cage is black, 5 feet 9, 190 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes.

Maggard said Cage was "known to the Irvine Police Department," but he declined to offer specifics.

Cage has had previous run-ins with the law. In 1996, he was found guilty in Orange County of inflicting corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant. Records also show he twice faced criminal charges in San Diego County. The results of those cases were unclear.

Cage's cousin, William Molson of Placentia, said Cage had served time in state prison and had recently completed parole. He would not say what Cage had been convicted of.

Molson said his cousin had worked at another Ralphs store in Irvine as a stocker during the grocery strike that ended this year. Cage had hoped to obtain a permanent job there but was let go shortly after the baby food tampering was discovered, he said.

Molson did not know why his cousin lost his job.

He said that Cage had told him that when he was walking home from work one night, a police officer stopped him for questioning, angering Cage.

"He was a parolee. He was black. He was walking in Irvine at night," Molson said. "He wasn't doing anything wrong, and he felt the officer was giving him a hard time. He felt threatened."

Molson said he couldn't imagine that Cage was involved in the food tampering. "It's very hard to get a job once you've had a history in prison, but he was trying to change his life. Dewey has a heart. He's a good person.... Dewey ain't trying to hurt nobody."

Marsha Palmer, one of the managers at the Ralphs store where Molson said his cousin worked, said Wednesday that she could not recall Cage ever having worked there. "I remember him as a customer," she said, "but not as a regular customer. I remember he was shopping [a couple of months ago]. I remember because he was tall and big, and I know he bought a whole shopping cart of stuff."

Ricin, one of the deadliest of poisons, comes from the bean that produces castor oil, the viscous liquid that generations of children came to detest.

The poison is extracted from crushed castor beans or from the leftover mash. A pinhead-sized dose can kill if it is injected, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Greater amounts are required to kill someone through ingestion or inhalation.

Eating castor beans can be toxic, said Dr. David Acheson, director and chief medical officer of the FDA's Food Safety and Security Staff.

The castor bean plant, an ornamental woody herb that gardeners prize, is legal to grow. The oil from the beans is used in such products as laxatives and lubricants.

Instructions for making the poison are easily available on the Internet.

Perhaps the most notorious case of ricin poisoning occurred in 1978, when an unknown assailant fatally stabbed a Bulgarian dissident in London with a spring-loaded umbrella tipped with the poison.

London police last year raided a suspected ricin lab operated by a group linked to Al Qaeda. And Paris police found traces of the poison in a train station locker connected to militant Islamists.

The first baby food tampering in Orange County occurred May 31. An Irvine couple had fed their 9-month-old daughter a couple of spoonfuls of the yogurt when they found the note wrapped in cellophane inside the jar.

The second incident occurred June 16. An Irvine man had finished feeding his 11-month-old son and was cleaning the jar when he found a similar note, also wrapped in cellophane. Police found a third note in an unopened baby food jar in the pantry.

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