FBI Talking to Hospitalized Man at Center of Las Vegas Ricin Case

By: Ken Ritter and Allison Hoffman AP
By: Ken Ritter and Allison Hoffman AP

LAS VEGAS (AP) - A man who may be unable to unlock the mystery of how a large quantity of highly toxic ricin came to be in his Las Vegas motel room has regained consciousness and was being questioned by investigators, authorities said Friday.

Roger Bergendorff, 57, remained in critical condition at a Las Vegas medical center where he has been hospitalized and unable to speak since Valentine's Day.

An FBI agent in Las Vegas told The Associated Press that investigators met Friday with Bergendorff, who officials hope can provide information about the Feb. 28 discovery of the deadly powder and castor beans, from which it is derived.

"We are in the process of speaking with him," said Special Agent David Staretz, spokesman for the FBI office in Las Vegas.

Staretz and Las Vegas police declined to provide more information.

"The investigation is still active," said Las Vegas Police Officer Martin Wright, a department spokesman.

Officials have said they've found no contamination anywhere, and no link to terrorism in the discovery of the exotic toxin, which can be lethal in amounts the size of the head of a pin. Ricin has no antidote and is only legal for cancer research.

In court documents made public this week, police call ricin a "biological weapon."

"It is our understanding that there is no established link to any terrorist organization or terrorism at this time," Rick Eaton, Nevada state homeland security director, said in a statement released in Carson City. "We defer to Las Vegas police and the FBI concerning the details of this case."

Friends and family members described Bergendorff as an unemployed and unmarried graphic artist, a recovering alcoholic who loved his pet dog and cats and struggled to pay his bills while living in Huntington Beach, Calif., Reno, the San Diego area and finally in a pickup truck camper near Salt Lake City. He moved in recent months to an extended stay motel several blocks off the Las Vegas Strip.

While Bergendorff appeared down on his luck and deeply saddened
by the death of his older brother in January, family members insisted he was not suicidal.

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

Although police have not said how much ricin the vials contained, search warrant documents describe it as "a large quantity."

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

"Based on the facts that detectives had ... the castor beans and a finished product, actual ricin, detectives were still looking for any additional locations or devices in which the agent could be made without detection," police told a Las Vegas judge in applying for a search warrant.

Documents relating to two warrants, obtained Feb. 27 and Feb. 29, were made public when they were filed Wednesday with Las Vegas
Justice Court.

The documents show that on Feb. 26, police who were called to Bergendorff's room at the Extended Stay America after motel staff
members found firearms in the room also found four "anarchists cookbooks" marked at sections describing how to manufacture ricin.

Police previously described finding just one book, "The Anarchist Cookbook," by William Powell.

The warrants also show that investigators searched another Extended Stay America motel in Las Vegas where Bergendorff lived earlier - looking for items that could be used to distill ricin from castor beans, as well as other clues about the origin of what they described as a "biological weapon."

The only things police reported finding in his 1999 Buick Century were two pieces of mail addressed to Roger Bergendorff, two folders of compact discs, and two pawn slips.

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

Family members said he was sedated when they visited him Feb.

While authorities suspect Bergendorff was exposed to ricin, and experts said his symptoms appeared consistent with ricin exposure,
they can't be sure because the poison breaks down in the body within days and Bergendorff was hospitalized for two weeks before the ricin was discovered at the motel.

A younger brother, Erich Bergendorff, said Roger Bergendorff was
moved Wednesday from intensive to intermediate care in the critical
ward of Spring Valley Hospital Medical Center in Las Vegas.

Hospital spokeswoman Naomi Jones said Friday that Bergendorff remained in critical condition. She said she was prohibited by patient confidentiality laws from releasing more information.

Erich Bergendorff said his brother was receiving dialysis for failing kidneys, and might still be on a ventilator to help him breathe.

"I was never given a clear diagnosis," said Erich Bergendorff, who lives in Escondido, Calif., a suburb north of San Diego.

He said hospital officials told him Wednesday that his brother was awake and had been told that his beloved dog, Angel, was euthanized after the Humane Society found her starving and without water in his motel room.

"It was my impression that they were able to communicate with him and he had talked enough to ask a few things," Erich
Bergendorff said.

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

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