LAS VEGAS — A motel patron hospitalized after the potent poison ricin was mysteriously found in his room “barely got by in life,” according to a woman who knew him when he lived at a Utah home that agents hoped to search Saturday.
A down-on-his-luck Roger Von Bergendorff lived at his cousin’s home for more than a year before moving to Las Vegas about a year ago, said Tammy Ewell, who lives across the street from Thomas Tholen in Riverton, Utah, and described him and his wife, Ellen, as close friends.
“He was very much a loner. I would say more or less socially regressive. He just barely got by in life. He’d just barely make it,” Ewell said. “Tom was the last resort.”
In a brief phone interview earlier Saturday, Thomas Tholen told The Associated Press that Von Bergerdorff was “holding his own” in the hospital.
Tholen, 53, wouldn’t say much more about Von Bergendorff or the discovery Thursday of several vials of ricin – which is deadly in minuscule amounts – at the man’s extended-stay motel room on the Las Vegas Strip.
Officials have secured Tholen’s home, where Von Bergendorff reportedly stayed, but they have not searched it because they are awaiting court approval for a warrant, FBI spokesman Juan Becerra said later Saturday.
Authorities have not said how much ricin was involved but expressed confidence they have it all.
Dr. Lawrence Sands, chief health officer of the Southern Nevada Health District in Las Vegas, said health officials are still trying to confirm whether Von Bergendorff’s respiratory ailment stemmed from ricin exposure.
Police and health officials have tried to assure Las Vegas residents there is no public health threat. There was no apparent link to terrorist activity and no indication of any spread of the deadly substance, they said.
In Salt Lake City, which is about 20 miles from Riverton, FBI agent Timothy J. Fuhrman said: “At this time, there is no indication of any threat to the public or individuals residing in the area.”
Adding to the mystery, police said late Friday that firearms, an “anarchist-type textbook” and castor beans, from which ricin is made, were found in the room where the poison was discovered.
The firearms and the book, which was tabbed at a spot containing information about ricin, were seized Tuesday after a manager at the Extended Stay America motel found the weapons and called police, police Capt. Joseph Lombardo said. He did not elaborate.
Ewell, Von Bergendorff’s former neighbor, said she often saw him walking his German shepherd on the street. It wasn’t clear what he did for a living or how he spent his time.
Toward the end of his stay, he started attending the local Mormon church and briefly moved out of the Tholen home into a neighbor’s camper, she said.
Tholen is a former high school art teacher who now sells insurance with his wife, she said.
“The Tholens were the last ones we’d expect anything to happen to,” Ewell said.
Tholen went to Von Bergendorff’s Las Vegas motel room and took the vials to the motel office in a plastic bag while retrieving his cousin’s belongings, authorities said.
Police previously said tests did not detect the material in the motel office, the room where Von Bergendorff, 57, stayed, or a room at the Excalibur hotel-casino where Tholen stayed Wednesday night.
As little as 500 micrograms of ricin, about the size of the head of a pin, can kill a human, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The only legal use for ricin is cancer research.
Las Vegas police, who have refused to identify Von Bergendorff or Tholen by name, said Friday that the hospitalized man was unconscious and that investigators had been unable to speak with him.
They have said Tholen arrived in Las Vegas after Von Bergendorff summoned an ambulance and was hospitalized Feb. 14 in critical condition.
Tholen contacted motel management Feb. 22 to inform them about pets in the room, and Las Vegas Humane Society officials took custody of a dog and two cats. The dog, which officials said was mortally ill after going at least a week without food or water, was euthanized.
After the vials were taken to the motel office, Tholen and six other people, including the motel manager, two motel employees and three police officers, were decontaminated at the scene and taken to hospitals for examination. None have shown any signs of being affected by ricin, officials said.
Associated Press writers Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, Martin Griffith in Reno and Paul Foy in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
This gets stranger by the minute. People like that are giving people that are
loners self-contained a bad name. Home-grown terrorism gone wrong? A man that decides to commit suicide and then decides against it? What, exactly, was he planning on doing with that ricin? We’ll have to wait to see if he survives for the answers to these questions.