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Wednesday, November 03, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Ricin maker to be sentenced

By Maureen O'Hagan
Seattle Times staff reporter

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Robert Alberg wanted just one thing in life: a girlfriend.

Shy, slight and forever single, the 37-year-old son of a local multi-millionaire dreamed of love, of being noticed, of sharing walks on sandy beaches.

When the love of his life failed to materialize, Alberg came up with another obsession: making deadly ricin. He was much more successful at that.

Arrested last April with jars of home-brewed poison in his Kirkland apartment, he seemed destined not for warm sandy beaches but for cold cell blocks.

Yet today, when Alberg is sentenced, he will face a U.S. District Court judge less as a would-be killer than as a man with a serious mental illness.

"This case arose as a desperate cry for help from a profoundly depressed man who, through no fault of his own and as a result of mental illness overlaid with autism, had alienated himself from society," his lawyer, David B. Bukey, wrote in court papers describing Alberg's descent.

Records show Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Blackstone agrees with Bukey. Both attorneys declined comment.

Alberg was born with substantial advantages. His father, Tom Alberg, is managing director of Madrona Venture Group, and was an early investor in Amazon.com and executive vice president of McCaw Cellular. His mother, Mary, is a university professor. Robert Alberg was eventually diagnosed with autism, major depression, Pervasive Development Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

His disabilities made him awkward and distant, and unable to easily deal with the ups and downs of life, court records show.

However, he clung to a fairly ordinary life. He held a stockroom-type job for three years, attended community college, and spent his spare time writing music. Fashioning himself as a singer-songwriter, he even produced his own CD.

Finally, about two years ago, all traces of normal began disappearing from his life.
 
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"Robert began a descent into an abyss of loneliness and depression, which left him completely isolated by April of this year," his attorney wrote. "The driving force was his inability to form any kind of attachment with a woman."

"I been single all my life," he wrote in song. "I been single every day and I been single every night ... "

The loneliness fed on itself. He refused to attend family holiday celebrations because married people would be there. He bought his groceries in the dark of night. He duct-taped his windows.

Alberg, however, maintained one portal to the outside world: the Internet. With information he picked up there, he began a series of increasingly dangerous science experiments. He ordered mercury online — and rubbed the toxin all over his body in what appeared to be a slow, bizarre, suicide attempt, according to court records.

Finally, he did something sure to draw attention: he learned how to make ricin, a deadly poison, using instructions from the Internet. In e-mails to family and friends, he flatly explained his experiments.

"It's fascinating to watch colonies of bacteria to grow and multiply," he wrote to one of his father's employees. "I now work on making bio-weapons since I am still single."

He was charged with possession of a biological toxin, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Blackstone, the head of the violent crime and terrorism unit at the U.S. Attorney's Office, soon realized, however, that Alberg was not a terrorist, and was convinced that he "had no intention of using the crudely manufactured ricin to harm anyone else," he wrote in court documents.

People with mental illness who fail to receive proper treatment regularly find themselves facing criminal charges, according to Peter Lukevich, a former judge who is now executive director of Washington State Partners in Crisis, a group advocating for better services for mental illness.

Most of them do not have the resources available to Alberg, whose family enlisted two top defense lawyers and a public relations firm to handle the crisis.

When Alberg appears in court today, he will have the benefit of a plea agreement that departs substantially from rigid federal-sentencing guidelines, which call for four to five years behind bars. Prosecutors instead will recommend five years' probation, along with treatment and restitution.

"This is an opportunity to deal with the root cause rather than put him in jail," Lukevich said.

A judge will rule on the recommended sentence today.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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