Pennsylvania Man Pleads Guilty to Obstruction of Justice Relating to Attempts to Acquire Ricin

Defendant was the director of advanced research at a Massachusetts biotechnology firm

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Molecule of ricin, 3D illustration, a highly toxic protein produced in seeds of castor oil plant Ricinus communis

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETS – A Pennsylvania man pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court in Boston to obstructing an investigation into his efforts to acquire the deadly toxin, ricin.

Dr. Ishtiaq Ali Saaem, 37, of Allentown, Penn., pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice. U.S District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns scheduled sentencing for Aug. 18, 2021.  

According to court records, Saaem held a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, resided in Massachusetts and worked as the director of advanced research at a biotechnology firm based in Massachusetts. Saaem became interested in acquiring ricin from castor beans as well as convallatoxin, a poison found in lily of the valley plants, after watching “Breaking Bad,” a popular television show. Saaem ordered online 100 packets of castor beans, each containing eight seeds. Saaem falsely told law enforcement agents that he purchased castor beans for planting at his apartment for decoration and that he had accidentally purchased 100 packets instead of one. After he spoke to agents, Saaem researched tasteless poisons that could be made at home.

During subsequent meetings with law enforcement personnel, Saeem stated that his interest in buying castor beans related to an interest in gardening. He also made misleading statements about his knowledge of ricin.


The charge of obstruction of justice provides for a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000. Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Acting United States Attorney Nathaniel Mendell and Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Field Division made the announcement. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kriss Basil of Mendell’s Securities, Financial & Cyber Fraud Unit is prosecuting the case.

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