The FBI on Wednesday said a University of Minnesota student may have been intentionally handling the suspected biological toxin ricin in her Dinkytown apartment Tuesday, causing her hospitalization and an evacuation of the area.
The federal law enforcement agency took over the investigation in a case that caused hundreds of students to clear the area and shut down nearby stores Tuesday after the discovery was reported at the Marshall apartment complex in the 500 block of SE. 14th Av. A preliminary test of the substance “indicated the presumptive potential presence of ricin,” according to the FBI.
The student had come in contact with the material, but “not in a random fashion; meaning she may have been intentionally handling the material,” according to an FBI statement. The agency will investigate how the woman “came into contact with this potentially dangerous material.”
The FBI downplayed any public risk “given the likelihood the material was confined to the single apartment in question and that it was likely not being used for any criminal activity,” according to the statement.
Ricin is a poisonous biological toxin found naturally in castor beans. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls ricin one of the most toxic biological agents known. It can be in the form of a powder, a mist or a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid. Unintentional exposure to ricin is highly unlikely except through the ingestion of castor beans.
Because ricin is considered a weapon of mass destruction, the FBI took over the investigation from the Minneapolis Police Department on Wednesday morning.
The woman took herself to the hospital and was expected to be OK, according to police spokesman John Elder. An FBI spokesman declined to answer questions about why the woman would have been handling the toxin.
After the building was evacuated, dozens of students stood behind yellow police tape or lounged on the grass across the street as they awaited word that they could get back into their apartments.
Residents were allowed to return five hours after evacuations began. A guard was stationed at the fifth-floor apartment overnight.
The FBI’s Hazardous Evidence Recovery Team was on the scene working with the Minnesota National Guard’s 55th Civil Support Team at the apartment on Wednesday.
Once the material is collected, it will be sent to an FBI lab in Quantico, Va., to determine whether it was ricin.
The scene was cordoned off for hours Tuesday after fire crews arrived about 4:20 p.m. and evacuated the Marshall and connecting addresses while sealing off the affected area. The large building faces multiple streets and has several street-level retail outlets, including a Target Express that was closed.
U student Jacob Lawson said that as firefighters left the building, they were washed down by a portable shower before taking off some of their heavier equipment.
On Tuesday evening, U student Betsy Ettinger said she had driven past all the commotion and made it into the Marshall’s parking garage shortly before 5 p.m. without knowing what had happened. She walked up to an empty dorm room and was greeted by a knock on the door. A man in a hazmat suit appeared, demanding that she evacuate for her safety.
“It was kinda scary,” the junior said. “Now we’re going to sit here until it’s over because we have nowhere else to go.”
In a letter to residents, Marshall managers explained that there may still be some access restrictions as the investigation continues and thanked residents “for your patience and cooperation during this stressful event.”
Staff writers Paul Walsh and Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.