Chemist Richard O'Rourke. (Courtesy of Montgomery County DA's Office)

It sounds like a plot from a comic book: a mad scientist dumping poison into a town's water supply.

 

But according to prosecutors, 60-year-old former Merck chemist Richard O'Rourke was no super-villain. He's just dumb.

 

O'Rouke, a now-fired senior analytical chemist at a Merck & Co. laboratory in Upper Gwynedd, allegedly was spotted stealing potassium cyanide from work by a coworker on Dec. 14 and allegedly pouring the chemical inside a Nalgene bottle. The coworker promptly notified the company, which contacted police.

 

Prosecutors say O'Rourke stole the poison to use to kill rodents at his residence. But when he caught wind of the fact he was being investigated for the theft, in what may have been an attempt to hide the evidence, he dumped the entire Nalgene bottle of poison into a storm-drain, causing a panic as state officials raced to monitor water supplies for signs of cyanide reaching the public.

 

"When he found out there was an investigation, he dumped the chemical into a storm-water inlet," the Montgomery County DA's office said. "After two weeks of intensive testing, assessing and monitoring storm-water systems, outfalls, retention basins, waterways and their tributaries, no evidence was found of a toxic impact."

Now, instead of just theft, O'Rourke is also charged with causing or risking a catastrophe and reckless endangerment of another person, felonies that could carry a lengthy prison term.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), as well as Aqua PA and the Philadelphia Water Department (which both have intake facilities that could have been affected), were on "high alert" for the two weeks after the chemical dump, through Dec. 29.

"According to PADEP, a significant rainfall occurred several days after the dumping of potassium cyanide," the Montco DA's office said. "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 after posting bail, set at $35,000, and will return to court on March 6.