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Wednesday, October 29, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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13-year sentence given in ricin trial

The Associated Press

SPOKANE — Despite pleas for mercy by the family of Kenneth Olsen, a federal judge yesterday sentenced the Spokane Valley man to more than 13 years in prison for possession of the deadly biological weapon ricin.

U.S. District Judge Frem Nielsen rejected pleas from Olsen's family to set aside the conviction or give a light sentence and instead imposed a midrange sentence of 13 years, 9 months.

"He took steps to accumulate the raw materials and equipment necessary to produce a poison," Nielsen said. "This conduct was dangerous and reckless."

The federal government considers ricin among the most toxic poisons known to humans, with no legitimate purpose, Nielsen said.

Olsen's wife, Carol, who prosecutors speculated was a possible target of the poison, said her husband would appeal the verdict.

"None of us believes he is guilty of the charges," Carol Olsen told the judge. "Each day you keep him in prison you are condemning five other people who love him to prison."

Two of his children wiped away tears as they also asked the judge to overturn his conviction. The other two children live in other states.

"I'm getting married next summer," daughter Amanda Olsen said. "Papa won't be there to walk me down the aisle."

Kenneth Olsen, 49, also made a brief statement, saying he was simply curious about ricin.

"At no time did I have a purpose or design to harm anyone," Olsen told the judge.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Hicks said the secretive way Olsen researched and made ricin, and studied how it could be delivered, indicated a sinister motive. Keeping the ricin at his desk at work exposed many people to danger, he said.

"This is a dangerous individual," Hicks said. "We can understand his family looking away from the obvious facts."

Ricin can kill without leaving a trace, and Olsen took great pains to ensure no one knew about his research, Hicks said.

A jury in July convicted Olsen, a software engineer and former Scoutmaster, of both making and possessing ricin, which the government has classified as a biological weapon since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Olsen was arrested in June 2002 after his employer, Agilent Technologies, discovered Internet logs of Web sites Olsen had visited from his work station, showing meticulous research into ricin.

Investigators found about 3 grams of ricin powder in two test tubes and a jar in Olsen's locked file cabinet at work — enough to kill as many as 900 people, depending on how it was delivered, federal witnesses testified.

Traces of ricin also were found on allergy tablets, a turkey baster and coffee grinder found at Olsen's workstation.

Also found were documents detailing how to kill someone without leaving a trace.

Internet searches into poisons and methods of killing people — from May 2000 until he was fired in August 2001 — corresponded to ups and downs in an extramarital affair Kenneth Olsen was having, prosecutors contended.

Ricin, derived from the castor-bean plant, can kill within days. There is no antidote. Prosecutors dismissed defense contentions that Olsen was researching how to make essential oils, such as castor oil, for a new career as a massage therapist.

Though there was no direct evidence of Olsen's intended victim, prosecutors suggested it could have been a boss or Olsen's wife of 28 years.

Defense attorney Tina Hunt attacked the government's case as "fantasies and assumptions." Olsen's searches for information on how to make untraceable poisons and kill people were "irresponsible" but not illegal, she told jurors.

No one was harmed by his work with ricin, Hunt said.

Nielsen also sentenced Olsen to five years of probation and fined him $22,900, the cost of hazardous-waste cleanup at Agilent.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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