FBI team searches Spokane apartment in ricin letter case

Authorities say the residents of building are not in danger

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SPOKANE -- Authorities in hazardous materials suits searched a downtown Spokane apartment Saturday, investigating the recent discovery of a pair of letters containing the deadly poison ricin.

Few details have been released in the case, and no arrests have been made. Federal investigators have been searching for the person who sent the letters, which were postmarked Tuesday in Spokane.

The letters were addressed to the downtown post office and the adjacent federal building, but authorities have not released a potential motive or said whether the letters targeted anyone in particular.

Ricin is a highly toxic substance made from castor beans. As little as 500 micrograms, the size of the head of a pin, can kill an adult if inhaled or ingested. There have been no reports of illness connected to the letters.

FBI agents, Spokane police and U.S. Postal Service inspectors descended on the three-story apartment building Saturday.

"We are not actively looking for a subject," said FBI spokeswoman Ayn Sandalo Dietrich. "We are not asking the public's help in bringing someone in."

Despite the hazmat suits, officials said apartment residents were not at risk, and people were seen coming in and out of the brick building in the city's historic Browne's Addition neighborhood.

"There's no public risk," Sandalo Dietrich said.

Scott Ward has lived in the building for three years, on the second floor near the apartment that was searched. He said he does not know the neighbor who lives in that apartment. "He's a guy with a big beard. He sticks to himself.

"He doesn't talk," said Ward, who added he was awakened about 7 a.m. by "banging and what sounded like a big vacuum."

Building resident Jim Lehman said he was asleep when he was called by a friend. "He said, 'Hey Jim, you're surrounded,'" Lehman said. Lehman said he saw workers in hazardous material suits working in a second floor apartment. "It was all gas masks and the door was open and there were hoses in there."

Sandalo Dietrich would not say specifically why the FBI was searching the apartment. "Information we developed led us to believe this was a productive spot to search," she said.

Two letters containing the substance were intercepted at the downtown Spokane post office Tuesday.

The Postal Service has received no other reports of similar letters, said Jeremy Leder of the Postal Inspection Service on Saturday.

In a statement, the Postal Service said the "crude form of the ricin suggests that it does not present a health risk to U.S. Postal Service personnel or to others who may have come in contact with the letter."

The Spokane investigation comes a month after letters containing ricin were addressed to President Barack Obama, a U.S. senator and a Mississippi judge. A Mississippi man has been arrested in that case.