A University of Texas student and researcher is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by the FBI after he was caught stealing chemicals from a lab, the Observer has learned. Documents show that Karl Jasheway, a 26-year-old graduate student who researched antidotes to a deadly toxin at a UT lab, is under investigation after a Travis County sheriff’s deputy found vials of chemicals stolen from UT in his car and apartment.
UT and law enforcement officials refuse to discuss the case, citing the ongoing criminal investigation by the FBI. UT has released a limited set of redacted records from the UT Police Department in response to an open records request.
Jasheway’s recent work involved looking for an antidote to ricin, an extremely lethal toxin and potential biological warfare agent refined from the castor oil plant. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regulates ricin as a “select agent,” biological toxins that have the “potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety.” Ricin has been at the center of numerous violent plots, most famously the 1978 assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who died after being shot with a ricin-laden pellet from a gun disguised as an umbrella.
On December 21st, a Travis County sheriff’s deputy pulled Jasheway over on suspicion of drunk driving, police and court records show. The deputy found 13 vials of chemicals and other lab equipment belonging to UT-Austin in his car. Two of the vials were empty, nine contained various common lab chemicals such as ammonium chloride, and one was simply labeled “brown liquid.” UT has not pursued charges given the FBI investigation.
In January, UTPD searched Jasheway’s home in Austin and recovered 44 plastic measuring tubes from the lab where Jasheway worked. “[Jasheway] stole numerous measuring tubes from the University for his person [sic] use,” the UTPD report states. “UTPD recovered 44 of the tubes. Suspect is under Federal Investigation.”
Although UT officials wouldn’t comment on the case, Jon Robertus, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry who ran the lab where Jasheway worked, said that the chemicals and equipment that Jasheway stole from UT are not the center of concern for the FBI.
“There was nothing serious that left the lab,” Robertus said. “All I can tell you is that what they’re looking at now has nothing to do with the lab. … They found something entirely different.” Robertus could not say what the FBI had found or whether it had anything to do with toxic agents. The Robertus lab specializes in a family of toxins, most of them harmless to humans, that also includes ricin.
UT officials declined to elaborate on the incident but Pat Clubb, UT’s vice president for operations, wrote in an email: “We are cooperating fully with law enforcement officials on this matter. Talking about the incident publicly would undermine the integrity of their investigation. While we are unable to discuss any details regarding this case, I would like to assure you that laboratory safety and security are among our highest priorities at The University of Texas at Austin. We are continually working to make our 1,400 research and teaching labs safe for students, staff, faculty, and community members. Over the past two years, we have developed even more stringent requirements for inspections, signage, and inventories of hazardous materials.”
Edward Hammond, an Austin-based independent researcher who specializes in tracking bio-defense projects, discovered the incident through an open records act.
“I can think of no reason why the FBI would be involved in this DWI and petty theft case unless it was concerned about dangerous toxins,” said Hammond.
Jasheway’s Facebook page contains violent imagery, including a police sketch of the Unabomber and an image of a man in a white lab coat being injected with a giant needle.
UPDATED AT 11:30 AM ON SAT., MARCH 10:
About an hour and a half after the Observer published this story yesterday, UT released a long statement on the incident with further details, inculding the results of lab tests of the 11 stolen vials. The Statesman‘s Ralph Haurwitz then ran a story based on the statement and the Observer‘s reporting (without, of course giving credit). Here’s a key portion of the UT statement:
University environmental health and safety officials tested the 11 vials on Dec. 22 and Austin Fire Department Hazmat retested them. The tests revealed that two of the vials tested positive for protein. Austin/Travis County Department of Health lab results later indicated that Ricin A chain DNA was present in the vials.
A chain Ricin DNA is not dangerous.
The lab in which Jasheway worked conducts research that is centered on the “A chain,” a fragment of Ricin that is not infectious, not toxic and not dangerous.
The university does not currently possess any biological agents that are regulated as select agents by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The university has small volumes of certain toxins that would be regulated by the CDC if they were held in much larger quantities.
University police immediately began investigating the incident as a possible theft and the university’s office of environmental health and safety reviewed and inspected the laboratory, beginning with a visit on Dec. 22.
They determined that there was no ongoing threat to public safety.
The FBI also began investigating this incident and is continuing to do so. The university is cooperating fully with the investigation.
The investigation also found 44 plastic vials off-campus, which have been returned to the university.
Notably, the results are consistent with what Professor Robertus told the Observer: That nothing dangerous was stolen from his lab. However, the UT statement contains no additional information about the focus of the FBI investigation, which apparently extends beyond the stolen UT toxins.
Also of note: UT discovered leftover ricin at the Robertus lab:
Robertus halted work on ricin in 1991 after his lab solved the structure of the molecule. However, during a lab safety inspection after the December incident, 25-year-old archival samples of whole ricin were identified undisturbed in the back of a freezer in the Robertus lab. This sample was below the volume that would require CDC regulation and was removed from the lab. That archival ricin was originally extracted from castor beans, some of which were also found in the laboratory and removed.
No further substances of concern have been discovered in lab safety inspections.