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Montgomery County chemist accused of stealing potassium cyanide, dumping it in storm drain

NORRISTOWN — A Montgomery County chemist was arrested Tuesday after investigators say he stole more than 200 grams of potassium cyanide from the laboratory he worked for to poison rodents on his property.

When he discovered he was the subject on an investigation, law enforcement officials say, Richard O’Rourke, 60, allegedly dumped the poison chemical down a stormwater drain near his property.

O’Rourke, of Warrington, is charged with causing or risking catastrophe, theft, receiving stolen property, and recklessly endangering another person, according to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office. He was investigated by law enforcement agencies from Montgomery County, Bucks County, Upper Gywnedd Township, and Warrington Township.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation also assisted in the case, officials say.

According to Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, O’Rourke is accused of taking 219.79 grams of potassium cyanide from Merck & Co., where he was employed at the time as a senior analytical chemist, in December of 2017.

The laboratory notified Upper Gwynedd Township Police on Dec. 16. Several other law enforcement agencies joined the investigation due to the nature of the alleged crime, Steele’s office said in a release announcing the arrest.

Police and members of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection investigated the incident, and were told by another chemist at the lab that on Dec. 14, O’Rourke was seen taking the potassium cyanide from a poison cabinet, pouring it into a beaker, and then into a Nalgene bottle.

O’Rourke was not required to handle potassium cyanide as part of his work responsibilities, law enforcement officials say. He was then seen leaving the building with the poison in his possession, officials say.

Further investigation revealed O’Rourke intended to use the poison to kill rodents on his property, police say.

But when he discovered there was an investigation into the alleged theft, O’Rourke dumped the chemical into a stormwater inlet near Country Line Road and Street Road on Dec. 15, according to police.

The PADEP located the dump site and monitored the water supply for signs of the chemical and toxicity, police say. Aqua PA and the Philadelphia Water Department maintain intake facilities nearby that could have been affected by the chemical dump, depending on where the potassium cyanide was disposed of, police say.

Aqua PA and the Philadelphia Water Department were informed of the dump, and began testing and sampling water from their intake systems, police say. Both water departments and the PADEP were on high-alert status for two weeks after the alleged chemical dump.

No evidence of a toxic impact was found, and at no time was cyanide detected at the drinking water intakes nor from any samples collected and analyzed by Aqua PA and the Philadelphia Water Department, according to Steele’s office.

“The immediate and decisive action by the Pennsylvania DEP and the collaborative efforts by law enforcement agencies were key to assuring that no one was harmed by the cyanide dump. The significant rainfall helped as well,” said Steele in the press release. “It is concerning that someone was able to remove such a poisonous chemical, but thankfully through an immediate and swift response by many people, nobody was hurt.”

O’Rourke was arraigned before Magisterial District Judge Suzan Leonard, who set bail at $35,000. The defendant posted bail and was released. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for noon on March 6, 2018, before Judge Leonard.