MANHATTAN — City agencies, led by the NYPD, ignored their own bioterrorism protocols while investigating a threatening letter sent to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and didn't realize it was laced with potentially deadly Ricin for days, DNAinfo New York has learned.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is supposed to examine all suspected toxic materials. But, when a letter containing an oily orange substance arrived May 24 at a city mail center on Gold Street, it was never brought to the DOH to be tested.
Instead, sources said, the NYPD “bigfooted” city and federal health and law enforcement agencies at the crime scene and, rather than taking the toxic letter directly to the DOH lab as required, it was taken to the police department's own forensic crime lab.
The DOH lab has the broadest expertise in examining an array of substances, while the NYPD lab is generally used to perform narcotics and ballistics tests. It is unclear if the NYPD tried to determine the exact nature of the orange substance that accompanied the letter, which also contained an angry message threatening Bloomberg over his strong anti-gun positions.
“[The city] did not know they had a dangerous substance on their hands,” a law enforcement source said.
It was not until four days later — after a similar letter was received at Bloomberg’s Washington-based anti-gun lobbying group and was tested at an appropriate local lab — that authorities in New York fully realized the danger.
“It was only then that authorities said we better take a better look at the letter in New York,” the source said.
The NYPD turned the tainted letter over to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York last Tuesday. Federal agents then drove the letter to the U.S. Department of Defense National Bioforensic Analysis Center in Maryland for analysis the following morning.
The military lab quickly identified the substance as Ricin, a potentially deadly substance made from castor beans.
The protocols requiring the DOH to be the lead in testing hazardous substances were established following a nearly deadly anthrax attack a decade ago.
Under the category entitled "Responding To A Suspected Bioterrorist," the Health Department's website says “if a bioterrorism agent is suspected” there will be “proper specimen collection and packaging to transport to the NYC DOHMH Public Health Laboratory for reference lab testing.”
A Health Department spokeswoman initially referred all questions to the NYPD, but later issued a statement acknowledging that the agency was not involved in testing the Ricin letter.
In the DOH statement, the spokeswoman said an initial test on the letter was done by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. But the DEP only tested whether any toxic materials were emitted into the air, sources said, not the mysterious substance itself.
The DEP's test came back negative.
"Initial testing was conducted by the Department of Environmental Protection, and the decision was made in coordination with federal authorities to have the sample tested for final results at the federal laboratory in Maryland," the spokeswoman said.
"This was done for two reasons: 1) A sample of this size can only be tested a limited number of times so it is not diluted. 2) Final confirmatory testing of high probability specimens such as this is always performed at this laboratory."
After the letter was discovered, a host of law enforcement officers from several city, state and federal law enforcement agencies responded, but the NYPD made sure it took complete control, according to sources familiar to the incident.
"The NYPD made sure no one but them was in charge," another source said.
NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit cops suited up in their safety gear and handled the letter, police said. Even so, three officers became contaminated and later developed symptoms, primarily diarrhea, related to Ricin exposure.
The NYPD did not answer a request for comment, but Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly defended the NYPD's handling of the incident at an unrelated press conference.
"They were doing everything they’re supposed to do," Kelly said, referring to the ESU cops.
In Washington, meanwhile, Mark Glaze, the director of Bloomberg's group Mayor’s Against Illegal Guns in Washington, also received a letter similar to the one received by Bloomberg.
That threatening letter was sent directly a federal laboratory that tests hazardous substances and was determined to contain Ricin.
A third Ricin-tainted letter was sent to President Barack Obama at the White House.
Meanwhile, federal agents continue to probe whether a Texas ex-Army veteran is responsible for the Ricin-laced letter-writing campaign that threatened Bloomberg and Obama for trying to restrict gun buyers’ access to weapons.