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Press Release

New York Man Sentenced to 16 Years in Prison for Attempting to Acquire Ricin

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs

Cheng Le, 22, of Manhattan, New York, was sentenced today to 16 years in prison for attempting to acquire ricin, postal fraud and identity theft in relation to a terrorism offense.  Le was convicted on Aug. 27, 2015, following a four-day jury trial before U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan of the Southern District of New York, who imposed today’s sentence.  Le’s trial conviction marked the first time in the Southern District of New York a defendant had been convicted at trial of attempting to possess a biological toxin for use as a weapon or of aggravated identity theft during and in relation to a terrorism offense. 

The announcement was made by Assistant Attorney General for National Security John P. Carlin and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of the Southern District of New York.

“Cheng Le attempted to acquire ricin for use as a lethal weapon, and used a stolen identity to do so,” said Assistant Attorney General Carlin.  “Le sought a ‘risk-free’ way to murder an individual, but thanks to the efforts of law enforcement, his lethal plans were thwarted and the deadly toxin was kept out of his hands.”

“Through the Dark Web, Cheng Le attempted to acquire a lethal toxin,” said U.S. Attorney Bharara.  “In Le’s own words, established at trial, he was looking for ‘simple and easy death pills’ and ways to commit ‘100% risk-free’ murder.  Thanks to the FBI, the NYPD and the Postal Inspection Service, Le’s deadly plot was thwarted and he has been incapacitated by a lengthy term in federal prison.”

According to the allegations contained in documents previously filed in federal court and the evidence presented at trial:  

Ricin is a highly potent and fatal toxin with no known antidote.  The dark web is a colloquial name for a number of extensive, sophisticated and widely used online criminal marketplaces, which allow participants to buy and sell illegal items, including ricin.      

In early December 2014, Le contacted a FBI online covert employee (OCE) on a particular dark web marketplace using an encrypted messaging service.  The OCE had taken over the dark web identity from another individual who had a reputation for selling lethal poisons.  After making contact with the OCE, Le inquired, “this might sound blunt but do you sell ricin?”        

Following that initial contact, Le exchanged a series of messages with the OCE concerning his efforts to purchase ricin.  During these messages, Le confirmed his understanding of the lethal nature of ricin, revealed his intent to resell the ricin to at least one secondary buyer, proposed that the OCE conceal the ricin in a single pill in an otherwise ordinary bottle of pills and indicated a desire to obtain more ricin in the future.  Le’s messages to the OCE included the following:

• “If [the ricin’s] good quality, I’ve already had buyers lining up.”

• “Does ricin have antidote? Last I check there isn’t one, isn’t it?”

• “Injection can be difficult to pull off. Ricin doesn’t work immediately. You wouldn’t expect the target to not fight back after being jabbed.”

• “The client would like to know . . . if it is wise to use ricin on someone who is hospitalized. . . .  Injection will leave needle holes on the body which could be found in regular forensic examination. But hospitalized people already have needles in them so it wouldn’t be suspicious. Thing is, would ricin make the death look like someone succumbed to the injuries after an accident and didn’t make it through? In that case then, a little anethestical [sic] gas in the target’s car, get him drowsy when driving, get into an accident, and then kill him in the hospital bed.”

• “I probably told you this before, about mixing one and only one toxic pill into a bottle of normal pills. They all look identical. And as the target takes the medicine every day, sooner or later he’d ingest that poisonous pill and die. Even if there is a murder investigation, they won’t find any more toxin. 100% Risk Free.”

• “If you can make them into simple and easy death pills, they’d become bestsellers.”

• “I’ll be trying out new methods in the future. After all, it is death itself we’re selling here, and the more risk-free, the more efficient we can make it, the better.”

• “Also, besides that one bottle of pills with one poisonous pill in there, can you send some extra loose powder/liquid ricin? I’d like to test something.”

Moreover, during these exchanges, Le revealed to the OCE that he had a specific victim in mind: “someone middle-aged.  Weight around 200 lbs.” 

On Dec. 18, 2014, Le directed the OCE to send a quantity of ricin addressed to the name of an individual whose stolen identity Le had assumed at a particular postal box in Manhattan.  On Dec. 22, 2014, the FBI prepared a mock shipment of ricin that was consistent with Le’s request to the OCE.  The sham shipment included a fake ricin tablet concealed in a pill bottle, and a quantity of loose fake ricin powder.  The next day, the sham shipment was delivered to the postal box.  Le, wearing latex gloves, retrieved the sham shipment, opened it and took the contents to his apartment.

When FBI agents entered Le’s apartment to arrest him and search the apartment pursuant to a search warrant, they saw the pill bottle open in his apartment.  The agents also recovered from Le’s apartment an envelope containing castor seeds from which Ricin can be produced.  The agents further observed that Le’s computer was open to the online account that he had used to communicate with the OCE and to Le’s personal email account.

Le was arrested in New York on Dec. 23, 2014, and was later convicted at trial of one count of attempting to possess a biological toxin for use as a weapon, one count of using a fictitious name in furtherance of unlawful business involving the mail and one count of aggravated identity theft during and in relation to a terrorism offense.  In addition to the prison term, Le was sentenced to five years of supervised release.

Assistant Attorney General Carlin joined U.S. Attorney Bharara in praising the outstanding investigative efforts of the FBI’s New York Joint Terrorism Task Force and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

This prosecution is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ilan Graff and Andrew D. Beaty of the Southern District of New York and Trial Attorney Joseph Kaster of the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section.

Updated August 11, 2016

Identity Theft
National Security
Press Release Number: 16-270