It all started with a tip from his wife.
On the morning of May 31, 2006, Carole Matthews called the Metro Police Department and requested they search the storage shed outside her Donelson home. A former police officer herself, she explained how she feared her husband, William Michael Matthews, might be storing illegal weapons there.
That alone was enough to prompt a search, but her story didn’t end there. And what came next sparked not only a response from local police, but from federal investigators, hazmat teams, bomb squads, scientists and even the U.S. Army.
Carole Matthews went on to explain that her husband—a longtime correctional officer—might have stockpiled homemade explosives, firearm silencers and even ricin, a deadly poison that’s been used in terrorist attacks and that some say has the potential to be used as a weapon of mass destruction.
So just before 10 a.m. on a calm spring morning, police rushed to the quaint red brick home in this densely populated middle-class neighborhood. The department’s Hazardous Device Unit began searching the brown wooden shed that sits on cinder blocks just steps away from the Matthews’ house in a well-landscaped yard sprinkled with birdhouses, feeders and wind chimes. By the end of the day, they would uncover an arsenal of weapons capable of killing thousands.
Among the items found were two improvised explosive devices, commonly known as pipe bombs, five homemade firearm silencers and numerous publications on how to manufacture machine guns and other weapons. Then, on a shelf in the corner of the shed, the hazmat team spotted an unmarked baby food jar filled halfway with white powder. Sitting next to the jar was a mortar and pestle caked in a similar white residue. Immediately, the search was suspended for the safety of the inspectors, and the unlabeled baby food jar was left sealed and sent, along with the mortar and pestle, to be tested by the Metro Health Department. Within one day, preliminary tests revealed the substance was in fact the toxin ricin.
Federal authorities joined the investigation, and on June 2, agents with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) converged on the property at 2548 Woodberry Dr. For the next three days, federal investigators, chemists and biologists from as far away as Quantico, Va., combed the property in search of any remnants of the deadly biological agent. Streets were closed in the tree-lined subdivision, and only residents were allowed to pass through the barricade to get to and from their homes. Although the neighborhood wasn’t evacuated, Carole Matthews was forced to relocate temporarily until the property was deemed safe. The poison harmed neither her nor any of her neighbors.
In addition to the ricin and pipe bombs recovered from the shed, investigators also seized numerous weapons inside the house belonging to Matthews, including four rifles (one equipped with a silencer), a shotgun, a revolver and a pistol. They also discovered three highly explosive devices commonly used for commercial blasting, along with three “blasting caps” sufficient to detonate the explosives.
Rumors swiftly spread throughout the neighborhood. Some speculated that maybe William Matthews, 56, was involved in a homegrown terror or separatist organization, although investigators have made no public statements supporting that theory. For the most part, residents were shocked that something like this could happen in this suburban enclave. And even more befuddling was the identity of the man suspected of building up this cache of deadly weapons. Not only did neighbors say William Matthews seemed like a “normal guy,” albeit a little eccentric, but he spent more than two decades as a correctional officer with the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office. In addition, his wife spent nearly three decades as an officer with the Metro Police Department before retiring in 2000.
“You don’t expect something like that to happen in a safe, established neighborhood like this,” says one neighbor, an elderly woman who asked not to be identified. “But then again, there are a lot of crazy people out there.”
Ricin is considered one of the most lethal biological agents because there’s no antidote, and because it takes only a miniscule portion to kill. As little as 500 micrograms of ricin—about the size of the head of a pin—can be deadly to an adult, which is why it’s illegal to possess any amount of the poison.
More than 5.6 grams of ricin was found inside the baby food jar in Matthews’ shed, according to the FBI, which amounts to more than 11,000 lethal doses.
“This is bad stuff, and that’s a very large amount. It’s very troubling,” says Dr. Robin Hemphill, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt and an expert in bioterrorism.
In February 2004, the Dirksen Senate Office Building was closed after ricin was detected in the offices of then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. The deadly toxin was mailed to the Republican senator’s office in powder form and detected in the mailroom. Dirksen and two other congressional office buildings were closed for several days while employees underwent a decontamination process. Ultimately, no one was harmed, and no suspect has ever been charged in that attack.
One of the most notorious ricin attacks occurred in 1978 and involved only a single victim, Georgi Markov, a journalist and outspoken critic of the communist Bulgarian government. Living in London at the time, Markov apparently was jabbed with the tip of an umbrella that had been rigged to inject a ricin pellet into his skin. After the run-in with an unknown passerby on the street, he continued on his way, but later developed flu-like symptoms and died within three days. The assassin, who never was captured, was thought to be a member of the Bulgarian secret service or the KGB.
It’s also believed that under Saddam Hussein’s leadership, Iraq made numerous failed attempts to weaponize the poison to cause mass casualties. And in 2003, authorities raided the London apartment of six Algerian men with ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and discovered traces of ricin, as well as numerous materials associated with production of the poison.
Devising a method to widely disseminate ricin and use it as a weapon of mass destruction, however, is much more difficult than simply creating the toxin and using it in isolated attacks. Poisoning many people at once would require finding a way to aerosolize the substance. For example, Hemphill recalls the 1995 terrorist attack in Tokyo, where a Japanese cult released sarin gas into the subway, killing 12 and injuring thousands. The group reportedly made numerous failed attempts before perfecting a manner of dissemination. Although a different type of poison, it would take a similarly sophisticated means to widely disperse ricin. But as in the case of the sarin attack, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.
“Can you go out and buy a garden-variety sprayer and keep experimenting with it until you get it right? Sure you could,” Hemphill says. “It’s possible if you have the time, money and the ability to experiment without getting caught. That’s why ricin is so serious. It’s lethal in small doses, which is why we say you just can’t have the stuff.”
Even more concerning in this case, Hemphill says, is the amount of the poison Matthews had processed. “Basically, if you know how to make 5 grams of ricin, you know how to make 10 grams of ricin, or even more for that matter.”
William Matthews was already in jail when his wife called police to report the dangerous materials she feared might be hidden in her shed. A Davidson County judge had issued an order of protection at Carole Matthews’ request in May while her husband was being treated for substance abuse. Matthews was required to stay away from his wife and the couple’s Woodberry Drive home. It’s unclear, however, exactly why his wife sought protection, because such orders are not public record. Carole Matthews did not return calls to comment for this story, and no one answered the door on two recent visits to her home.
Despite the court order to stay away, Matthews returned home on two occasions. The second violation on May 24 landed him back before a judge, who sentenced him to nine months in jail. Before this arrest, Matthews had no criminal record.
While Matthews was in jail, a longtime friend of his reportedly contacted Carole Matthews and revealed some shocking information about her estranged husband. He claimed that Matthews had manufactured ricin, pipe bombs and other weapons, and he warned that they were being kept in the storage shed just outside her home. Immediately, the retired Nashville police officer contacted the authorities.
Police later interviewed the source of the information, Earl Delzell, one of Matthews’ oldest and closest friends, who, according to an affidavit prepared by FBI Special Agent Adriaan Valk, told investigators he had known Matthews for nearly 40 years and that he only recently learned of his friend’s involvement in making dangerous weapons.
Delzell told investigators that Matthews revealed he had constructed several explosives, which he described as “your average pipe bomb.” He reportedly told his friend that the pipe bombs were old and that he needed to get rid of them, though he didn’t say how. On more than one occasion, Matthews allegedly brought the homemade silencers to Delzell’s home “to show them off.” Delzell went on to tell investigators, “Matthews took pride in his work and bragged about how quiet the silencers were,” adding that his friend recently spoke of buying a 9 mm silencer and attaching it to a Glock.
Delzell would not be interviewed for this story. (His wife indicated they weren’t interested in commenting and hung up the phone.) And although Special Agent Valk also declined to comment on the specifics of this investigation because it’s still in the prosecution phase, he did say this case is unlike any other he’s encountered.
Escorted by two U.S. marshals, William Michael Matthews shuffled down the long tile corridor heading to a courtroom inside the federal courthouse last month. Matthews, who is facing life in prison for the biological weapon charge, has pleaded not guilty to all counts. The tall, lanky man moved slowly down the hallway, wincing in pain with each step. Matthews was handcuffed, but without shackles, which is unusual for a federal prisoner.
Wearing a bright-orange jail-issued jumpsuit, Matthews sat next to his lawyer, methodically stroking his long white beard as the pretrial proceedings began. The first order of business was deciding whether Matthews was competent to stand trial. In previous months, Matthews underwent numerous psychiatric evaluations while in federal custody, and a report from the Federal Bureau of Prisons indicates he is in fact competent. Judge E. Clifton Knowles agreed, saying he doesn’t believe the defendant is currently suffering from any mental disorder. The judge then weighed a defense motion asking that Matthews be allowed to live in a halfway house pending trial. A trial date currently is set for Feb. 6, although Matthews could seek a plea deal before then. The deadline for any proposed plea agreement is Jan. 19.
Opposed to Matthews’ release pending trial, the prosecution called two witnesses to testify about the dangerous weapons found stockpiled, and the defendant’s alleged confession following his arrest.
First, ATF Agent John Harrell recounted the discovery of two functional pipe bombs—one made of galvanized pipe, the other of plastic plumbing pipe—which were carefully removed from the shed and detonated at a remote location. Also found were five silencers, which he explained were “intended to muffle the sound of firearms as they are discharged.” Just as he began to describe exactly how silencers work, Matthews interjected from his seat, saying matter-of-factly, “they cause turbulence,” before trailing off into a complex narrative about the mechanics of the devices. He continued mumbling until his lawyer shook his head disapprovingly. Finally, Matthews ceased his explanatory outburst and resumed stroking his beard.
Agent Harwell proceeded, discussing federal investigators’ initial interview with Matthews. He said Matthews was questioned at the police station shortly after the ricin, pipe bombs and silencers were discovered, and that he admitted to making and storing each of the weapons, and to testing the silencers on several occasions.
As for the reason Matthews allegedly gave for possessing the ricin, Harwell said, “He said he was saving it for a rainy day” and that “he had thought about using it on a homeless person but had not.” At this point, the prosecution has presented no other motive in the case.
FBI Special Agent Greg Franklin then testified about the extreme toxicity of ricin, for which he reiterated there is no antidote. The jar of ricin was sent to the CDC for further testing, and then shipped to Fort Detrick Army Base in Maryland, where it remains safely stored. Franklin said that during an interview with FBI agents, “the defendant admitted to making this ricin approximately five or six years ago.”
Following testimony from both federal agents, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Deneke argued that no conditions of release would ensure the community’s safety given the seriousness of the charges. “Mr. Matthews has admitted to manufacturing pipe bombs, firearm silencers and a biological agent of mass destruction capable of killing thousands and thousands of people.”
Defense attorney Sumter Camp, however, suggested that because Matthews no longer has access to the weapons found in the shed or the means to re-create them, he should be allowed to reside in a halfway house pending trial. He said his client’s health had deteriorated and that Williams was in extreme pain as a result of three back surgeries in recent years. “We are also asking for drug treatment,” Camp said, adding that the surgeries and subsequent pain led to his client being addicted to pain medication.
But Judge Knowles denied the defense’s request, saying, “There are no conditions that would reasonably ensure the safety of other persons.” Following the hearing, neither Matthews’ defense lawyer nor the prosecutor would comment for this story given the status of the case.
William Matthews was a young man when he was hired to work at the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office in 1981. For the next 14 years, he served as a correctional officer working directly with inmates, consistently receiving above-average evaluations, according to a recent review of his personnel file. Then, in 1995, he was promoted to the civil warrants division, which serves orders of protection, eviction papers and other legal notices.
During his tenure as a warrants officer, Matthews excelled and was described in evaluations as a “self starter,” someone who “works well without supervision” and “makes good decisions.” In 1997, Matthews filled in when a supervisor took a leave of absence from the warrants division. A subsequent letter of appreciation thanking him for his service indicated that the warrants division executed 99.2 percent of its intended protection orders during that month, “the highest percentage of service since the conception of the program.”
In 1998, Matthews was nominated for employee of the month for years of dedicated service in various positions and facilities: “He has an outstanding [rapport] with the citizenry…and always takes the time to assist in any way possible. He has been the coordinator of the Adopt-a-Senior Program…his paperwork and reports are usually flawless.… If any task, large or small, is requested of him, it will be accomplished,” the nomination said.
The only blemish on his employment record at the sheriff’s office came in 1996 when a random drug test revealed Matthews had smoked marijuana. Matthews waived his right to a hearing and accepted a 10-day suspension without pay, and over the next year he was required to submit to numerous random drug tests, all of which came back clean. In fact, it was after this incident that Matthews really seemed to succeed professionally, in part by furthering his education in law enforcement. Matthews completed extensive training, ironically in the field of drug testing, and in the fall of 2004 he was transferred to the Davidson County Drug Court, where he worked for the next year-and-a-half with no grievances.
Then, in the spring of 2006, everything changed. In the span of three days, two different female employees with the Drug Court accused Matthews of sexual harassment. In the first case, the woman said it started with Matthews asking if she would join him for a cup of coffee. She agreed and told him to call her office number to set up a time. The following day, a Saturday, she claimed Matthews called her cell phone three times in 10 minutes. When she finally answered, the woman reported that he asked if anyone else was on the line listening. “He then said that he thought he was dreaming about our conversation on Friday and asked if I wanted to have coffee,” she wrote in her report. “I told him, ‘no, and we shouldn’t have any conversations outside of work.’ He said he understood.”
But on the following Monday, Matthews allegedly left a voice message for the female employee at work asking her to go to lunch. The woman ignored the message, and later that day he visited her office. Again she reminded him to be professional and said they should not have any contact outside of work. Again he agreed, but as the woman was driving home that afternoon, she received another cell phone call from Matthews. She answered and, after a brief exchange, Matthews reportedly blurted out, “I wanted to tell you I can’t keep my hands off you.”
A different female co-worker claims Matthews sexually harassed her that very same day. In that case, the woman claims: “He told me he had a ‘highly inappropriate attraction’ to me. I answered that he is right, that it is highly inappropriate. He stated he is on ‘all this medication’ and gets ‘confused.’ He looked at [a] picture on my desk and stated I had a perfect family. I stated that it was perfect to me. He stated again that he was inappropriately attracted to me.”
The next day, on Tuesday, March 28, Matthews submitted a letter of resignation indicating he was seeking retirement or disability effective immediately and that he would not be returning to work. After receiving the letter and the two complaints, his supervisors requested a meeting to discuss the sexual harassment allegations. When asked for his side of the story, according to an incident report in his personnel file, Matthews said, “Things had not been going well at home and he just wanted some of that p___y (sic). He then stated he had been calling [the two female employees] on their cell phones trying to get them to go out with him. He also stated he had been smoking marijuana.” In response, the supervisors offered him an opportunity to seek help through an employee assistance program, but Matthews refused. Instead, he was placed on administrative leave until his service pension was processed.
Everything written about Matthews in his performance evaluations throughout most of his career—good rapport with others, makes sound decisions—seemed to be the case outside of work as well, at least from a distance. Neighbors who lived near the Matthewses for years all seemed to echo the same remarks about him. He was friendly, but often kept to himself. Frequently he was seen working in the yard or piddling in the shed, a habit that seemed harmless enough at the time.
“I used to see him out in the yard from time to time. He sometimes would feed the pigeons out front, and he would throw up a hand and wave as we walked by,” says one elderly neighbor who lives just across the street. The woman, who has lived in the subdivision since it was built in the 1950s, says the Matthewses have lived in that house on the corner as long as she can remember, adding that they’ve never caused any problems. In fact, she says, she even felt safer knowing they both worked in law enforcement. That is, until she found out what was going on in that shed, which she points to from her front porch. “My first reaction was, you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s home, even this close by.”
Janet Al-Hasan has lived next door to the Matthewses for the past 13 years and says William Matthews seemed like any other “ordinary neighbor.” The young mother of four used to see him out in the yard quite a bit until about a year ago, she says, when he began wearing leg braces. After that, she says he seemed to have trouble getting around and she didn’t see him too much.
Like other neighbors, Al-Hasan was shocked when police swarmed the house and she learned what had been going on just a few feet from her own home. “We just couldn’t believe it.”