Woman: Man in ricin case 'a loner'


A hospitalized man whose hotel suite was found to contain the poison ricin "barely got by in life," said a woman on Saturday who knew him when he lived at a Utah home that agents want to search.

A down-on-his-luck Roger Von Bergendorff lived at the home of his cousin Thomas Tholen for more than a year before moving to Las Vegas about a year ago, said Tammy Ewell, who lives across the street from Tholen in Riverton, Utah.

She described Tholen 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 of Von Bergendorff. "Tom was the last resort."

In a brief phone interview earlier Saturday, Thomas Tholen said Von Bergendorff 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 hotel room on Valley View Boulevard near Flamingo Road.

Officials have secured Tholen's home, where Von Bergendorff is reported to have 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, said health officials still are trying to confirm whether Von Bergendorff's respiratory ailment stemmed from ricin exposure.

Police and health officials have said there is no public health threat. There was no 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 Fuhrman said: "At this time, there is no indication of any threat to the public or individuals residing in the area."

Von Bergendorff also rented a "storage bin" at Allstate Self Storage, on Boulder Highway near Desert Inn Road, that investigators inspected, a Homeland Security memo obtained by the Review-Journal stated.

A manager at the business declined to comment on Friday, referring a reporter to Las Vegas police for information on the investigation.

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 hotel found the weapons and called police, Las Vegas 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 art teacher who 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 hotel room and took the vials to the hotel office in a plastic bag while retrieving his cousin's belongings, authorities said.

Police previously said tests did not detect the material in the hotel 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 haven't identified 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 hotel 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 ill after going at least a week without food or water, was euthanized.

After the vials were taken to the hotel office, Tholen and six other people, including the hotel manager, two hotel employees and three police officers, were decontaminated at the scene and taken to hospitals for examination. None has shown any signs of being affected by ricin, officials said.

Review-Journal reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

 

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