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The 'why' of ricin cache is still a puzzle

Investigation following discovery of the lethal poison moves to Utah, where a now-critically ill man once lived.

March 03, 2008|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — As mysteries go, this one offers an intriguing trail of clues: A man who suddenly falls ill. A deadly toxin. Guns. An "anarchist-type textbook."

Beyond the items found in Roger Von Bergendorff's motel room here, authorities have revealed little about how the 57-year-old ended up unconscious and in critical condition, possibly from exposure to the poisonous substance ricin.

Von Bergendorff -- a graphic designer who was struggling financially -- was hospitalized on Feb. 14 after struggling to breathe. Police say they found several vials of ricin and the castor beans needed to make it in Von Bergendorff's room at the Extended Stay America Hotel.

A book in the room was marked at a section about the poison -- 500 micrograms of which (about the size of the head of a pin) -- can kill a human.

There was no apparent link to terrorism, officials said, and they have yet to find any more ricin.

FBI spokesman Juan Becerra said Sunday that the focus of the investigation was shifting to Utah. Authorities -- dressed in hazardous-material protection suits -- searched a home and garage-size storage units in the Salt Lake City suburbs where Von Bergendorff lived.

Von Bergendorff spent much of his adult life in Orange and San Diego counties. Public records indicate that several tax liens were filed against Von Bergendorff in San Diego County in the mid-1990s. He also filed for bankruptcy in 2000, records show.

After being evicted from a Utah apartment a few years ago, he moved into his cousin Tom Tholen's basement, said Brad Ewell, one of Tholen's neighbors in Riverton, Utah.

Von Bergendorff didn't pay rent, ran up the Tholens' phone bill using dial-up Internet service and stayed longer than Tholen expected, according to Ewell. "The Good Samaritan got bitten," he said.

Neighbors called Von Bergendorff standoffish. A hulking man with wavy hair, he worked with computers and delivered pizza. Much of his time was spent with his pets, including a German shepherd.

But Von Bergendorff "dressed normal; he wasn't a shaved-head supremacist guy or someone you'd think would cause trouble," Ewell said. Von Bergendorff joined a Mormon congregation and told neighbors he had overcome a drug addiction.

Eventually, Von Bergendorff moved into a neighbor's camper trailer. The neighbor, John Walster, asked Von Bergendorff to leave in August 2006, but did not specify why, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Neighbors heard little more about Von Bergendorff until a few weeks ago. He had been hospitalized at Spring Valley Hospital in Las Vegas and apparently called his cousin.

Last week, when motel managers began the process of evicting Von Bergendorff, they found four firearms and the book tabbed to the ricin section, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Days later, Tholen discovered the castor beans and ricin vials, which he took to hotel managers, authorities said. Health officials are still working to determine whether the poison caused Von Bergendorff's illness.

Ricin -- made from the waste left over from processing castor beans -- has only one legal use: cancer research. The toxin can cause vomiting, diarrhea, fluid in the lungs and respiratory or organ failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Its reputation stems in part from the death of a Bulgarian writer in the 1970s, the CDC said.

Georgi Markov was attacked by a man in London who had rigged an umbrella to inject the writer with ricin.

In 2003, a gambling executive committed suicide in Las Vegas by injecting himself with the poison, and the next year, the substance was found in the of then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

In Riverton, neighbors were stunned that Tholen, a retired art teacher who hosts barbecues and passes out Christmas cookies, had become entangled with the investigation.

"You couldn't see him being involved in something like this," said Chelsea Neider, a student who has lived nearby for four years.

--

ashley.powers@latimes.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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