Man believes he was sickened by ricin, brother says
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
SAN DIEGO -- A man who has been hospitalized since Valentine's Day with respiratory ailments and failing kidneys told his brother he believes he was contaminated by the deadly ricin poison found in his Las Vegas motel room.
Roger Bergendorff regained consciousness Wednesday and was upgraded to fair condition Monday at a Las Vegas medical center.
His younger brother, Erich Bergendorff, said they spoke briefly on the telephone Sunday for the first time since the ricin was found, and said Roger claimed he had never had any intention of endangering anyone with the toxin.
"He did mention that he would have never done anything to anybody," said Erich Bergendorff. "He himself is under the impression he was contaminated by it -- he did mention the ricin and seemed to say something like, 'Gee, it sure worked on me."'
Erich Bergendorff said his brother told him the ricin was easy to make. But he added that his brother, who was on a ventilator until last week, still had a hard time speaking clearly, so it was not clear whether Roger Bergendorff made it himself or watched someone else manufacture the powder.
"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. "It's almost as though in his own mind it wasn't that big of a deal."
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.
Officials from both agencies declined to comment about what they learned.
Doctors have not formally diagnosed Roger Bergendorff. Experts said his symptoms appeared consistent with ricin exposure, but the poison breaks down in the body within days, making it hard to trace.
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.
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 Bergendorff posed a threat.
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 say 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 in the room.
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 the Spring Valley Hospital Medical Center, where his condition was variously described later as comatose and unconscious.