Man Says Ricin Found in Las Vegas Motel Room Belonged to Brother

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SAN DIEGO (AP) - Vials of the deadly biological agent ricin found last month in a Las Vegas motel room belonged to a man who has been hospitalized with symptoms of ricin contamination, his brother told The Associated Press.

Roger Bergendorff was upgraded from critical to fair condition Monday at Spring Valley Medical Center, less than a week after regaining consciousness for the first time since Valentine's Day.

His younger brother, Erich Bergendorff, told the AP that he had spoken with his brother Sunday on the telephone for the first time since the ricin was found.

Roger Bergendorff claimed he never had any intention of endangering anyone with the toxin, his brother said.

"He just confirmed that it was not intended for anybody," said Erich Bergendorff. "It was something that would be used for his own purposes, for self-defense."

Roger Bergendorff, 57, was questioned by investigators from the FBI and the Las Vegas police on Friday in hopes that he could provide information about the Feb. 28 discovery of the ricin powder and castor beans, from which it is derived.

On Monday, Las Vegas police referred questions to the FBI. Special Agent David Staretz, spokesman for the FBI office in Las Vegas, declined comment.

"Due to the pending investigation, no further details will be provided," Staretz said.

Ricin can be lethal in amounts the size of the head of a pin. It has no antidote and is only legal for cancer research.

Ricin is categorized as a biological agent under the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, which carries the possibility of life in prison and unspecified fines for production, acquisition or possession of a biological agent, according to Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.

Mere possession for purposes other than "bona fide research" or "other peaceful purpose" carries the possibility of fines and up to 10 years in federal prison, Boyd said.

The FBI, Las Vegas police and state and federal prosecutors in Nevada refused to discuss whether they plan to file charges against Roger Bergendorff, who had been suffering from respiratory ailments and failing kidneys.

He told his brother he believes he was contaminated by the deadly ricin poison found in his motel room.

Erich Bergendorff said his brother was cooperating with investigators who questioned him at the hospital.

In court documents, police described the amount of ricin found in the vials as "a large quantity" and characterized the poison as a biological weapon.

But officials have said they have not found evidence in the motel room or elsewhere of contamination and have downplayed the possibility that Roger Bergendorff posed a threat.

Erich Bergendorff said his brother told him the ricin powder was easy to make but said it wasn't clear whether Roger made it himself or watched someone else manufacture it.

He added that his brother, who was breathing with assistance from a ventilator until last week, still had a hard time speaking clearly.

"He did talk as though he just had it there, he was almost kind of casual about it," said Erich Bergendorff, who talked to his brother on the phone from his home in Escondido, Calif., north of San Diego.

Roger Bergendorff told his brother his illness was caused by the poison.

"He himself is under the impression he was contaminated by it," Erich Bergendorff said. "He did mention the ricin and seemed to say something like, 'Gee, it sure worked on me."'

Doctors have not formally diagnosed Roger Bergendorff, his family said. Hospital spokeswoman Naomi Jones declined to specify details of his condition, citing patient confidentiality rules.

Experts said his symptoms appeared consistent with ricin exposure, but the poison breaks down in the body within days, making it hard to trace.

Friends and family members described Bergendorff, an illustrator, as a loner who struggled to pay his bills while moving around California, Nevada and Utah with his beloved dog, Angel, and pet cats.

He had lived in recent months at the Extended Stay America motel several blocks off the Las Vegas Strip while waiting for a freelance job contract.

Erich Bergendorff said his brother was deeply saddened by the death of their older brother in January but insisted Roger Bergendorff had not been suicidal.

"He did say he felt very empty with his loss," said Erich Bergendorff, who added that his brother was lonely in the hospital and newly distraught after learning that his dog was euthanized after the Humane Society found her starving and without water in his motel room.

Police said a cousin, Thomas Tholen, of Riverton, Utah, was collecting Bergendorff's belongings from his room on Feb. 28 when he gave a motel manager a plastic bag containing several vials of what turned out to be ricin powder.

Police later found four "anarchists cookbooks" in the room marked at sections describing how to make ricin. Firearms also were found.

Authorities said they found no traces of ricin in the room, in the motel manager's office, in a Las Vegas Strip hotel room where Tholen stayed, or in vehicles belonging to Tholen and Bergendorff.

Bergendorff had, by that time, been hospitalized for two weeks. Police said he summoned an ambulance Feb. 14, complaining of respiratory distress. He was taken to Spring Valley hospital, where his condition was variously described later as comatose and unconscious.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)