Chemist accused of stealing potassium cyanide to poison rodents

Authorities announced the arrest of a chemist accused of stealing potassium cyanide from the Merck & Co. laboratory in Upper Gwynedd Township.

According to authorities, Richard O'Rourke, 60, of Warrington, Pa., faces charges of Causing or Risking Catastrophe, Theft, Receiving Stolen Property and Recklessly Endangering Another Person related to the theft and disposal of 219.79 grams of potassium cyanide stolen. Investigators say at the time of the theft, O'Rourke was employed as a senior analytical chemist at Merck & Co.

Upper Gwynedd Township police were notified on December 16, 2017 by Merck & Co. that O'Rourke may have stolen potassium cyanide from a Merck laboratory.

Authorities say the investigation revealed that another longtime senior analytical chemist at Merck & Co. witnessed O'Rourke pouring potassium cyanide, taken from the poison cabinet, into a beaker and then into a Nalgene bottle on December 14, 2017. O'Rourke, who was not required to handle potassium cyanide as part of his work responsibilities, was then observed leaving the building, according to investigators.

The investigation revealed that the defendant was planning to use the cyanide to poison rodents on his property, but when he found out there was an investigation, he allegedly dumped the chemical into a stormwater inlet in the area of County Line Road and Street Road, between Easton Road and Second Street Pike, authorities said.

The PADEP, contacted by Merck & Co. immediately attempted to locate the alleged dumpsite of the potassium cyanide and began monitoring the water supply for signs of the chemical and toxicity.

After two weeks of intensive testing, assessing and monitoring stormwater systems, outfalls, retention basins, waterways and their tributaries, no evidence was found of a toxic impact. 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 PADEP, a significant rainfall occurred several days after the alleged dumping of the potassium cyanide. That rain should have been sufficient to flush the potassium cyanide out of any stormwater inlet, leading the agency to determine that the chemical had been diluted and washed out.

O'Rourke is free on $35,000 bail.