LAS VEGAS (AP) - An unemployed graphic designer who spent two
months in a hospital with symptoms of ricin poisoning pleaded not
guilty Friday to federal possession of biological toxin and weapons
Roger Bergendorff, 57, remained seated in a wheelchair and spoke
only to answer U.S. District Magistrate Lawrence Leavitt, who asked
if Bergendorff understood the charges in a three-count indictment
handed up April 22.
"Yes," Bergendorff responded in a raspy voice.
Leavitt also asked Bergendorff's lawyer, Paul Riddle, a deputy federal public defender, if Bergendorff was competent to help in his defense. Riddle said he was.
The judge set trial for June 17 in federal court in Las Vegas.The charges carry a possible penalty of 30 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.
Authorities say the case doesn't have any ties to terrorism, but that Bergendorff admitted keeping ricin for protection against unspecified personal enemies.
Bergendorff, dressed in tan jail scrubs and rubber slippers, declined to speak with a reporter before his brief arraignment. His lawyer declined comment afterward. Bail was not discussed, and Bergendorff remained in federal custody.
His cousin, Thomas Tholen, 54, of Riverton, Utah, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Salt Lake City to one felony count of knowing about a crime but failing to report it. Prosecutors say Tholen knew Bergendorff made ricin in Utah when he was staying with Tholen. If convicted, Tholen could get up to 3 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Bergendorff's demeanor Friday was more muted than during his
initial hearing April 16, when he told another judge that he was not a criminal and never would have spread the toxin he is accused of possessing.
Authorities say about 4 grams of "crude" powdered ricin were found Feb. 28 in Bergendorff's extended-stay motel room several blocks off the Las Vegas Strip, along with illegal silencers for .22 caliber weapons.
Leavitt said the indictment contained a provision that would let the government confiscate the silencers.
Other items seized from the room included castor beans, two .25-caliber pistols, a .22-caliber rifle, a .22-caliber pistol and books with information about how to distill ricin from castor beans, authorities said.
Bergendorff was hospitalized at the time, unconscious in what police variously described as a coma and sedation. He had summoned an ambulance Feb. 14, complaining of breathing trouble. He also was
treated for kidney failure. Because of the time lag, authorities have said they were unable to say for sure that his ailments stemmed from ricin exposure.
Cancer research is the only legal use for ricin, which can be lethal in minuscule amounts and has no antidote. Federal prosecutor Gregory Damm has said that he believed Bergendorff had enough of the substance to kill more than 500 people.
Investigators think Bergendorff first made ricin in San Diego in the late 1990s, and in the Reno and Salt Lake City areas before moving to Las Vegas. Police and homeland security officials said they found no ricin contamination in any place Bergendorff stayed.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)