MANHATTAN — The NYPD nearly destroyed deadly ricin sent in a threatening letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg by testing it for fingerprints and other evidence without identifying what the substance was, sources told DNAinfo New York.
As "On the Inside" reported Wednesday, city officials, led by the NYPD, ignored their own protocols in dealing with the letter, which was found at a city mail facility last month. As a result, the city didn't determine that the letter was laced with ricin, a potentially deadly substance.
Sources say in the NYPD's zeal to crack the case, they focused on finding forensic evidence, such as DNA or fingerprints, on the letter to try to identify the sender.
Those efforts included spreading fingerprint dusting powder and other chemicals on the evidence, which nearly destroyed the ricin sample, sources say.
The ricin languished for days unidentified in the NYPD lab, leaving the city and investigators in the dark as to the threat it caused.
It was only after Mark Glaze, the head of Bloomberg’s Mayor’s Against Illegal Guns organization, received a similar ricin-laced letter at his Washington office days later that officials realized the letter Bloomberg received had never been properly tested.
“This was an important breach of protocols that placed Mr. Glaze in harm’s way,” a law enforcement source said.
“If we knew the substance was ricin right away on the day it arrived in New York, it would have triggered notifications to people to be on alert for similar letters, which would have been intercepted, and Mr. Glaze likely would have been spared exposure to the ricin letter.”
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The FBI also declined to comment.
The screwup started when a letter threatening Bloomberg over his anti-gun initiatives arrived May 24 at the Gold Street mail center in Lower Manhattan. The letter contained a mysterious orange substance.
City bioterrorism protocols established after the near-deadly 2001 anthrax attacks in New York required the NYPD to take the toxic missive to the city's Department of Health for sophisticated tests.
But that never occurred.
According to a DOH spokeswoman, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection conducted a test, which sources say only determined that the air was safe.
But the DEP does not test or identify potentially hazardous materials. That job is left to the Health Department. Its website clearly spells out under the category “Responding To A Suspected Bioterrorist" that "if a bioterrorism agent is suspected there will be proper specimen collection and packaging to transport to the NYC DOHH Public Health Laboratory for reference lab testing.”
Meanwhile, three Emergency Service Unit cops were sickened by their contact with the New York letter.
Ultimately, it was not until Tuesday, May 28 — after the scare involving Glaze, whose letter was found that Sunday — that New York officials realized their mistake.
On May 29, the letter to the mayor was finally turned over to the feds and was driven by agents from the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force to the U.S. Department of Defense National Bioforensic Analysis Center in Maryland, where it was finally determined to be ricin.