U.S. Attorney's Office
Southern District of New York
(212) 637-2600
January 20, 2015

Manhattan U.S. Attorney and FBI Assistant Director Announce Arrest of New York Man for Attempting to Acquire Deadly Toxin, Ricin

Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and George Venizelos, the Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), announced today that a federal grand jury returned a two-count Indictment against CHENG LE for attempting to acquire and distribute ricin and committing postal fraud. LE was arrested in Manhattan on December 23, 2014, by the FBI. He was presented before the U.S. Magistrate Judge James C. Francis IV on December 24, 2014, and has been detained since his arrest. He is expected to be arraigned on Friday, January 23, 2015, before the United States District Judge Alison J. Nathan.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “As alleged, Cheng Le attempted to acquire ricin, a potentially lethal toxin, through the Dark Web so that it could be used for deadly purposes. Thankfully, with the help of our law enforcement partners he was intercepted and must now answer for his alleged crimes.”

Assistant Director-in-Charge George Venizelos said: “In the shadows of the Dark Web, criminals hide behind a veil of anonymity, sniffing out hidden opportunities to buy and sell illegal and potentially dangerous merchandise. As alleged, in this case, activity carried out in the marketplace served as a conduit for Le to obtain ricin. In his desire to acquire this potentially deadly toxin, he picked his own poison and now faces the consequences of the justice system.”

According to the allegations contained in the Complaint unsealed today in Manhattan federal court, and the Indictment:

Ricin is a highly potent and potentially fatal toxin with no known antidote. The “Dark Web” is a colloquial name for a number of extensive, sophisticated, and widely used online criminal marketplaces, which allow participants to buy and sell illegal items, including ricin.

In early December 2014, an individual (the “Ricin Buyer”) contacted an FBI online covert employee (the “OCE”) on a particular Dark Web marketplace using an encrypted messaging service. In December of 2014, the Ricin Buyer exchanged a series of messages with the OCE, during which the Ricin Buyer explored the possibility of the OCE supplying the Ricin Buyer with ricin, for the Ricin Buyer to resell to at least one secondary buyer.

The Ricin Buyer’s messages to the OCE included the following:

  • “If [the ricin’s] good quality, I’ve already had buyers lining up.”
  • “Does ricin have antidote? Last I check there isn’t one, isn’t it?”
  • “I probably told you this before, about mixing one and only one toxic pill into a bottle of normal pills. They all look identical. And as the target takes the medicine every day, sooner or later he’d ingest that poisonous pill and die. Even if there is a murder investigation, they won’t find any more toxin. 100% Risk Free.”
  • “I’ll be trying out new methods in the future. After all, it is death itself we’re selling here, and the more risk-free, the more efficient we can make it, the better.”
  • “Also, besides that one bottle of pills with one poisonous pill in there, can you send some extra loose powder/liquid ricin? I’d like to test something.”

On December 18, 2014, the Ricin Buyer directed the OCE to send a quantity of ricin to a particular postal box in Manhattan (the “Postal Box”). The FBI later determined that the Postal Box belonged to CHENG LE. Later that same day, FBI agents observed LE wear latex gloves while retrieving a package from the Postal Box (the “Package”) and mailing it at a nearby post office (the “Post Office”). Law enforcement officers examined the Package, confirmed that it did not contain any hazardous materials, and determined that LE had listed a fake name as the Package’s return address. A postal employee (the “Postal Employee”) told the FBI that the Postal Employee had seen LE at the Post Office on multiple prior occasions and that LE had worn blue latex gloves on at least some of those occasions.

On December 22, 2014, the FBI prepared a mock shipment of ricin (the “Sham Shipment”) that was consistent with the Ricin Buyer’s request to the OCE. The Sham Shipment included both a fake “ricin” tablet concealed in a pill bottle (the “Pill Bottle”), and a quantity of loose fake “ricin” powder. The next day, the Sham Shipment was delivered to the Postal Box. LE, wearing latex gloves, retrieved the Sham Shipment, opened it, and took the contents to his apartment. When FBI agents entered LE’s apartment to arrest LE and to search the apartment, pursuant to a search warrant, they saw the Pill Bottle open in his apartment.

* * *

The Indictment charges LE, 21, of New York, New York with one count of attempting to possess a biological toxin for use as a weapon, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, and one count of using a fictitious name in furtherance of unlawful business involving the mail, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. The maximum potential sentences in this case are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by a judge.

Mr. Bharara praised the outstanding investigative efforts of the FBI, the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”), and the United States Postal Inspection Service (“USPIS”). LE’s arrest is the result of the close cooperative efforts of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force—which consists of law enforcement officers of the FBI, NYPD, USPIS, and other agencies—and the National Security Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The case is being prosecuted by the Office’s Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ilan Graff and Andrew D. Beaty are in charge of the prosecution.

The charges contained in the Complaint and the Indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

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