A 37-year-old man with a PhD in biomedical engineering from Duke told law enforcement agents in Massachusetts that he had meant to buy one packet of castor beans in June 2015, not 100 packets. He also said he wanted the beans in order to do some decorative planting around his apartment. Both were lies, say officials, and in April 2021, Ishtiaq Ali Saaem pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice. On Thursday he was sentenced to three years of probation—six months to be served on home confinement—and a fine of $5,500. The case is drawing attention because the deadly toxin ricin is made from castor beans. In court, the director of advanced research at a biotech firm told a judge Breaking Bad inspired him to make the purchase.
In the TV show, main character Walter White uses ricin to kill a drug dealer; prosecutors say the toxin featured in 13 of the show's episodes. Per the DOJ release, "After he spoke to agents, Saaem researched tasteless poisons that could be made at home. During subsequent meetings with law enforcement, Saeem stated that his interest in buying castor beans related to an interest in gardening. He also made misleading statements about his knowledge of ricin." Prosecutors found no evidence that Saaem actually tried to make ricin, and no intended victim was identified, reports the Washington Post.
The Boston Globe reports Saaem told US District Judge Richard Stearns he had been "guided by innocent curiosity" and had no intention of harming anyone. He said when FBI agents questioned him in July 2015 about the buy, he was "scared and overwhelmed ... which led to my poor choice of not telling the truth." During the hearing, his lawyer added that Saaem thought the beans would make a "good conversation piece" and were something he could toy around with. (Read more ricin stories.)