Ramineh Behbehanian
Ramineh Behbehanian is accused of putting tainted bottles of juice in a Starbucks refrigerator near other items for sale. ((San Jose Police Department))

SAN JOSE -- A San Jose chemist who had been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after allegedly trying to plant tainted orange juice at a Starbucks was released from jail without being charged Thursday.

Ramineh Behbehanian, 50, had been considered dangerous enough to be held without bail since her arrest Monday night, based on police reports. But the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office is still investigating what was in the juice, if anything.

"We don't know what's contained in the orange juice, and we're doing a wide spectrum of tests,'' said Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu-Towery. "We have to be careful with what we charge, and we can't go ahead without knowing what was it was.''

Prosecutors had until Thursday to formally charge her, but charges could come at a later time.

Outside her home Thursday night, she moved quickly from her attorney's BMW into her house without offering any comment to reporters camped outside.

But her lawyer, Dennis Lempert, said, "I am gratified that the DA is taking its time in analyzing the material found. There are no charges against her right now and with any luck there won't be.

"If it is in fact a poisonous drink, I am a little surprised that lab criminologists have not been able to analyze that in three days."

Witnesses claimed they saw Behbehanian trying to sneak two bottles filled with rubbing alcohol and orange juice into a display case at the Snell Avenue cafe.


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A key issue in the case is exactly what was in those bottles and how lethal the mixture is. If the substance is not lethal, Behbehanian could be charged with a misdemeanor count of adultering food rather than felony attempted murder.

Science background

The case has drawn national attention, partly because it involves the international coffee chain and because it touches on the vulnerability of the public to poisoning.

Behbehanian's background also is unusual. She's an experienced corporate chemist and pharmacist from South San Jose who at the time of her arrest was working at Janssen, a pharmaceutical subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. Her LinkedIn page states that she worked as a scientist, engineer or project manager for a string of high-profile corporations including Pfizer and Boston Scientific.

For an attempted murder conviction, prosecutors would have to prove two things -- that Behbehanian took a direct step to kill someone and would have been successful if an outside factor hadn't intervened, and that she intended not merely to maim or injure, but to kill.

Police haven't revealed whom, if anyone, might have been targeted. But they arrested Behbehanian on suspicion of attempted murder after the ploy was sniffed out by a customer and a sharp-eyed employee who took note of her car's license plate number as she made a hasty exit.

Initial tests of the bottles revealed them to have a potentially lethal amount of rubbing alcohol.

Police had said they didn't know why she allegedly put the tainted juice bottles -- which no one drank -- into the refrigerated display case at the Snell Avenue shop.

Alert employees

Police say a coffee-shop regular was standing behind Behbehanian about 3:45 p.m. and allegedly saw her pull two bottles out of her green Starbucks bag and place them in the open-air fridge.

The customer immediately alerted a store manager, said police spokesman Jason Dwyer, apparently spooking Behbehanian into leaving, but not before an employee got a glimpse of her license plate.

Employees immediately grabbed the bottles, said Dwyer, and realized the seals had been broken and they smelled "something toxic."

They called 911, summoning San Jose police and the San Jose Fire Department, which brought its hazardous materials team. After clearing out the store, the hazardous materials technicians took samples of the liquid and ran it through a portable mass spectrometer that confirmed it was isopropyl alcohol, a common household solvent.

"It was significant enough to be seriously harmful. I can't say it will cause death, but it's a possibility," said Capt. Cleo Doss, a fire department spokesman. "It depends on how much you consume. They could have a sip and stop, or someone who couldn't smell it, maybe had a cold, might drink more."

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.