On Thursday, Saaem was charged to three years’ probation — with six months under house arrest — after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice by lying to the FBI. Prosecutors had asked US District Judge Richard Stearns to send him to prison for a year.
“Ricin has only one purpose,” federal prosecutor Kriss Basil told the judge, and that’s “to kill people.”
Saaem’s attorney, Derege Demissie, didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post sent Monday morning, but at Thursday’s sentencing, Saaem told the judge innocent he was “guided by curiosity,” the Boston Globe reported.
“I never made the poison nor intended to harm anyone,” Saaem said, according to the paper, adding that he was he was “scared and overwhelmed” when FBI agents confronted him, “which led to my poor choice of not telling the truth.” .”
At the hearing, Demissie said his client never made ricin, the Globe reported. He only ordered the beans after watching “Breaking Bad” made him think they’d be a “good conversation piece” and something he could experiment with. “There’s no evidence whatsoever that Mr. Saaem intended to use ricin to harm people.”
The seed for Saaem’s ricin idea didn’t involve him at all. On March 8, 2009, AMC released the premiere of Breaking Bad’s second season. In the episode, although White makes ricin to covertly murder a volatile drug dealer who could kill him at any moment, he fails to successfully administer the poison. But the highly toxic substance remerged in the show repeatedly over the years — in 13 episodes total, according to federal prosecutors — until, in the 2013 series finale, White uses it to kill off one of his final adversaries.
All of that inspired Saaem, alleged prosecutors. Two years after the show ended, Saaem — who had graduated from Duke University with a doctorate in biomedical engineering — was working as the director of research at a biotechnology company in Massachusetts. In June 2015, he purchased castor beans, which are actually seeds. He also bought six lily of the valley plants, known for berries that produce the poison convallatoxin. Again, Saaem’s muse was the fictional White, who uses the berries in “Breaking Bad” to poison and nearly kill a young boy in an effort to frame an enemy.
A month later, FBI agents interviewed Saaem about his self-admission that he’d purchased 800 castor beans — far more than the two needed to deliver a potentially fatal dose of ricin. Saaem told them he bought them to grow plants “for ornamental purposes” and had accidentally purchased 100 packets instead of one. The same day the FBI agents talked to him, however, Saaem went online to websites entitled “What is the most lethal poison?” and “The five deadly poisons that can be cooked up in a kitchen,” prosecutors said in court documents, while also searching for “tasteless poison household item” and information about poisons derived from tomatoes.
Later, he would tell authorities he wanted to plant the seeds in his front yard because he liked the castor plant’s orange and green color, leaf shape and their hardiness in withstanding New England winters.
None of that was true, according to authorities.
“Saaem lied to the government brazenly,” Basil, the prosecutor, wrote in court documents.
Basil said prosecutors have no evidence Saaem actually made ricin, and investigators never identified a victim Saaem meant to poison. It’s unclear if he planted the castor beans, she added. In July 2019, he told authorities that he had but that the plant died. Six months later, he claimed he threw out the seeds as soon as they arrived in the mail.
“Saaem’s true purposes in 2015 and 2016 may never be known,” Basil wrote in court documents, “yet it is clear that he had something to hide.”
“Breaking Bad” has inspired others to make or obtain ricin. In 2014, a 20-year-old Georgetown University student was required to be a year in prison for having an unregistered biological agent or toxin after making ricin during a school break. Law enforcement discovered undergraduate Daniel Milzman had watched the TV show in the months leading up to his arrest and believe that’s where he got the idea to make ricin.
In 2016, a 22-year-old New Yorker was sentenced to 16 years in prison for trying to buy ricin on the “dark web” from a seller secretly working for the FBI. Prosecutors said that, although Cheng Le’s ricin plans weren’t “totally clear,” he knew it would be used to hurt people, once telling an FBI informant, “It is death itself we’re selling here, and the more risk-free , the more efficient we can make it, the better.”
Le told authorities that “Breaking Bad” inspired him to make or obtain ricin.
Despite prosecutors pushing the judge to send Saaem to prison, he declined. The judge noted that Saaem, a stay-at-home father, is the primary caretaker for his 3-year-old son, who was born three months premature and suffers from chronic medical conditions, the Globe reported. Locking him up would “pose an undue and extreme hardship on his family.”
After the hearing, Saaem said he was grateful to have avoided prison, according to the newspaper.
“I never had any intent to harm anyone,” he said. “I’m moving on with my life.”