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Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Nicholas Helman Ricin Case: Beware of the Jilted Nerd

     In 2013, 19-year-old Nicholas Helman lived with his mother in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, a town of 8,000 in Montgomery County within the Philadelphia metropolitan area. One of the young man's neighbors in the Eleanor Courts apartment complex described Nicholas as the kid you went to school with for twelve years but don't remember.

     Helman, a quiet, unassuming Eagle Scout, worked at the Target store in Warrington, Pennsylvania. He also spent a lot of time searching for geocaches--objects that are hidden and can be found through GPS coordinates posted on the Internet. Casual acquaintances thought that Helman was much younger than nineteen.

     In the summer of 2013, Helman met a young woman his age at an Eagle Scout picnic. They began dating and he fell in love. When she left him for another man in November 2013, the devastated Helman began sending threatening emails to the new boyfriend. When the object of his wrath brushed off his threats, Helman decided to poison his competitor to death. This was not behavior befitting an Eagle Scout.

     On March 7, 2014, Helman confided in a fellow Target employee that he had just placed an envelope in his rival's mailbox that contained a scratch-and-sniff birthday card laced with ricin, a deadly poison. (Ricin is a protein found in the caster oil plant. The pulp from just eight caster beans can kill an adult. As little as 500 micrograms of the poison, an amount that would fit on the head of a pin, can be fatal.) Helman bragged to his confidant that anyone who came into contact with his ricin would be dead in a few days.

     Helman identified his poison target as his ex-girlfriend's boyfriend, a guy who lived in Warminster, a Bucks County town 40 miles north of Philadelphia. The shocked employee wasted no time in calling the police.

     Police officers, on the day Helman confided in his fellow worker, went to the Eleanor Courts apartment complex to question the suspect. Upon their arrival they arrested Helman as he tried to sneak off carrying a backpack and a piece of luggage.

     Under police questioning, Helman admitted that he had placed an envelope containing a birthday card in his rival's mailbox. He said his intent was to scare his ex-girlfriend's boyfriend, not to hurt him. He was motivated by the desire to get the girl back. Helman claimed that the birthday card was harmless.

     Police officers found, in Helman's backpack, a white bottle labeled "sodium hydroxide" that contained a crystal-like powder. The suspect also possessed a recipe in a notebook that listed ingredients such as caster beans, sodium hydroxide, mixing materials, and other substances.

     Investigators telephoned the poison target's residence and spoke to his mother who said her daughter had just left the house to fetch the mail. The police caller instructed the mother to put the mail back into the box and wait for the police.

     Nicholas Helman was taken into custody and booked into the Montgomery County Jail on the charge of harassment. Shortly after the hazardous materials team retrieved the plain white envelope without a stamp, address, or return address, Helman posted his $50,000 bond and was released from custody.

     After toxicological testing confirmed that the birthday card contained ricin, a Bucks County prosecutor charged Nicholas Helman with attempted first-degree murder. On March 19, 2014, FBI agents and local police officers, backed up by a SWAT team, surrounded the Helman apartment. Following a two-hour standoff, the suspect surrendered to the authorities. A judge denied Helman bail pending a psychiatric evaluation.

     The next day, police officers found a stash of ricin tucked under a gas manhole cover in Hatboro not far from Helman's apartment.

     In November 2014, Nicholas Helman pleaded guilty to the attempted murder charge as well as the offenses of attempted aggravated assault and risking a catastrophe. In July 2015, Judge Alan Rubenstein sentenced the 21-year-old to twenty to forty years in prison. The judge called Helman's crime "extraordinary" and compared his behavior to that of a terrorist. "You are bright. You are articulate. You are responsive," said the judge. "But I don't think you appreciate the damage you have caused people very close to you."

     As deputies led Helman out of the courtroom in handcuffs, the prisoner wept as he said goodbye to family members.

     

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