February 9th, 2007 04:03 EST
The Case of the Poisoned Cookies
It was an odd weaponized delivery system: a sugary-sweet homemade cookie. In April 2005, all nine U.S. Supreme Court justices got one in the mail along with a bluntly worded note along these lines: “I am going to kill you. This is poisoned.”
They weren’t the only ones. Similar threats were sent to the FBI Director and Deputy Director and to the chiefs of staff of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The 14 letters each had messages typed and signed with a different name, and each contained one cookie or piece of candy.
Because the FBI is responsible for investigating threats against Supreme Court justices and other national leaders, our Washington office opened a case in May 2005, led by FBI Special Agent Monica M. Patton.
Here’s how her investigation played out:
- Her first step: to send all the letters to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, for testing. The Lab found that, yes, this was no joke: each homemade cookie or candy contained bromadiolone rodenticide, a rat poison. Our Lab analysts also found fibers from clothes in a few of the letters, but no usable DNA evidence or fingerprints.
- How about the return addresses? A dead end, at least at first. The names and addresses were real, but interviews by agents around the country turned up no viable suspects. “It was looking like an unsolvable case,” Patton said.
- Until an agent in Florida made a telling discovery. “When one of our agents showed a woman a list of all the other names used on the return addresses, she turned pale,” Patton said. Why? Because seven of them were in her Florida college sorority class of 1967!
- Agents re-interviewed these sorority class members and found a common thread: a woman named Barbara March in Bridgeport, Connecticut. We also learned that the other seven names were connected to March: an ex-husband, a brother, three other classmates, an old roommate, and a former coworker. March had a grudge against all 14 people and was apparently trying to get them in trouble with the law. We moved quickly, as March had two prior violent felony convictions.
- Using a search warrant, agents went to her apartment and found clothes that the FBI Laboratory later forensically matched to the fibers found in some of the letters. They also found a list of first names and states that matched the list of senders. Entries on another list included “type letters”, “have a plan” and “candy & tape—no fingerprints—plastic gloves.” Strange…and very incriminating.
- March didn’t have a typewriter—but Patton, along with a Bridgeport agent, discovered three at a nearby library. Bringing the case full circle, Patton sent the ribbons to our Lab, where forensic experts reconstructed the return addresses and contents of five letters. Case closed.
And quickly. Just two months after sending the letters, Patton worked with Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Schmidt to obtain an arrest warrant. March pled guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison in October 2006.
In the end, it was a classic case of good old-fashioned detective work and interagency partnerships blending with our modern scientific expertise to catch the villain.