Ricin mystery deepens: Man struggles were from Calif. to Reno, Utah and Vegas
LAS VEGAS (AP) ” If only Roger Bergendorff could say why vials of deadly ricin, guns and a copy of the “The Anarchist Cookbook” were found in his Las Vegas motel room.
Instead, the struggling graphic artist remained hospitalized Thursday, unconscious and on a ventilator, unable describe how he and his beloved dog, Angel, moved from California to Reno to Utah to Las Vegas before becoming the focus of a toxic mystery still puzzling investigators.
“At this stage of the investigation, he could be a perpetrator, he could be a victim, he could be both,” said Special Agent David Staretz, spokesman for the FBI office in Las Vegas.
Bergendorff, 57, has been hospitalized since Feb. 14, when he summoned an ambulance to the Extended Stay America motel several blocks from the Las Vegas Strip, complaining of respiratory distress.
Authorities suspect Bergendorff was exposed to ricin, which is deadly even in minuscule amounts. But they cannot be sure because the poison breaks down in the body within days. Bergendorff was hospitalized for two weeks before the ricin was discovered in the motel room.
Family members and former neighbors in Southern California, Reno and the Salt Lake City area say they’re mystified.
“I can say with confidence there was no intent for any kind of terrorist activity,” said Erich Bergendorff, a younger brother who lives in Escondido, Calif. “I was asked by the FBI if he’s affiliated with any group or if he would have been influenced by any group. I couldn’t prove it, but I would be willing to bet that would not be the case.”
Roger Bergendorff, whose middle name is Von, grew up in La Mesa, Calif., a quiet bedroom community about 10 miles east of downtown San Diego, and lived in Huntington Beach, Calif., before moving at least six times from 1990 to 2007, according to public records and interviews with friends and family members.
Never married, he struggled with booze and bills. The recovering alcoholic declared both personal and business bankruptcy in the 1990s, suffered a heart attack in 1998, at age 48, and was treated for depression, his brother said. He seemed to always have money problems and sometimes overstayed his welcome when people tried to help.
Bergendorff worked for slot machine maker International Game Technology in Reno from August 2001 through January 2004.
When he moved to Las Vegas, he told his family he was working on a contract designing graphics for another slot-machine company. That contract ran out, and he told his brother he planned to stay and wait for another job.
His brother said Bergendorff graduated with a bachelor’s degree and honors in May 1980 from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. But he sometimes felt inadequate in his work.
“I don’t think he felt he was creative enough,” Erich Bergendorff said. “He really felt he had to work hard … to keep up the standards that he had which were really quite high.”
Friends and family members say Bergendorff was deeply saddened by the Jan. 27 death of his older brother, Fred, who had struggled with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Bergendorff would call the care facility where his brother was being treated and ask nurses to hold the phone to his ear so they could talk. He was concerned he couldn’t afford to travel from Las Vegas to Southern California for Fred’s memorial service, family members said. He posted a Jan. 29 message online describing Fred Bergendorff as “the best brother you could have.”
Roger Bergendorff also worried about his dog, Angel, who at 13 years old suffered health problems and needed eye drops four times a day, Erich Bergendorff said.
“Whatever he went to the hospital for, it was not suicide,” the brother said. “There might have been an accident. He was very depressed about losing his brother and having financial difficulties and losing his job.”
Family members didn’t know until Feb. 21 that Roger Bergendorff was hospitalized. They reached a motel manager, who found Angel and two cats in Bergendorff’s room and turned them over to the Humane Society.
After a week without food or water, the dog was so sick it had to be euthanized, police and Humane Society officials said.
With eviction looming, a motel employee went to the room again Feb. 26 and found guns in the room, police said. The employee contacted authorities, who retrieved the guns and William Powell’s “cookbook” on how to assemble homemade bombs, marked at a section on ricin, Las Vegas police said.
Police found no ricin and tested the air, but found no contamination. They have not said what weapons were found.
Two days later, as cousin Thomas Tholen was collecting Bergendorff’s belongings from the room, he turned over a plastic bag containing several vials of what turned out to be ricin powder to the motel manager. Authorities said castor beans, from which the ricin toxin is derived, also were found in Bergendorff’s room.
Police and the FBI quickly denied any terrorism link, but have not explained why. Officials said Bergendorff could face state charges of possession of a controlled substance or more serious federal charges of possession and manufacture of ricin.
Ricin has no antidote, and can be lethal in amounts as little as 500 micrograms, or about the size of the head of a pin. It prevents the body from synthesizing proteins and shuts down vital organs such as the liver, kidneys and heart, said Andrew Ternay Jr., founder of the Rocky Mountain Center for Homeland Defense at the University of Denver.
“If you breathe it in, it would spread very rapidly through the blood stream,” said Ternay, author of a glossary of technical terms and acronyms of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, “The Language of Nightmares.”
“It’s not the kind of stuff you use for anything except for poison,” he said. The only legal use for ricin is cancer research.
In Riverton, Utah, where Roger Bergendorff lived before moving to Las Vegas, neighbors described him as a down-on-his-luck loner who lived at Tholen’s house for a time, and then in a pickup truck camper with two cats and his dog.
John Walster, who lives three houses from the Tholens, let Bergendorff use the camper after he wore out his welcome at Tholen’s home in the spring of 2006.
Bergendorff was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Walster said some congregation members tried to help him find housing in Salt Lake City. But Bergendorff told him he’d be leaving soon for a job in Las Vegas.
“I says, if you only need two weeks I’ve got a camper,” Walster said.
Bergendorff stayed about three months before Walster asked him to leave in August 2006. When Bergendorff still didn’t move out, Walster packed up his things and left them outside.
That unwillingness to leave echoed Bergendorff’s experience in Huntington Beach, Calif., where he lived by himself for a decade and designed airbrush calendars and postcards that were sold in souvenir shops.
His former landlord, Jerry Smith, recalled Bergendorff frequently paid his rent late, and was being evicted when he declared his illustration business bankrupt in April 1990. Bergendorff claimed $309,700 in debts and $26,650 in assets.
When Bergendorff finally moved out, he destroyed a darkroom he’d built inside the two-bedroom apartment, Smith said. He left torn pages from adult magazines scattered everywhere.
“He was mad because we had to evict him,” Smith said. “It was like he wanted to do something symbolic with these magazines, to shock us.”
Associated Press Writers Allison Hoffman in San Diego and Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.