Substance detected in officer

A police officer who went to a motel room where ricin later was found has tested positive for trace amounts of a substance that can be derived from the poison’s source, authorities said Thursday.

“We did have one sample that had trace detectable levels of ricinine,” said Pat Armour, manager of the Southern Nevada Public Health Laboratory.

The officer has shown no signs of illness or symptoms of ricin poisoning, officials familiar with the investigation said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the investigation into the Feb. 28 discovery of the vials of ricin and the raw material, castor beans, in the motel room.

KTNV-TV in Las Vegas identified the officer as Jim Mitchell.

About 5 percent of the U.S. population is thought to have trace levels of ricin, Armour said. She said it’s not dangerous at that level, and the officer’s urine test results might have stemmed from exposure to castor oil, cosmetics, particle board, paints or other manufactured products derived from castor beans.

Armour said ricinine does not derive directly from ricin, a substance for which the only legal use is cancer research. Ricinine is an alkaloid extracted from the seeds of the castor plant.

Officials have said they found no ricin contamination in the motel room and have said they could not say conclusively that the man who lived in the room, Roger Von Bergendorff, was poisoned.

“Beyond the possibility of Mr. Bergendorff, we are not aware of anyone else who has become ill as a result of ricin exposure from this matter,” said Special Agent Joseph Dickey, a spokesman for the FBI office in Las Vegas.

Bergendorff, 57, an unemployed graphic artist, summoned an ambulance Feb. 14 because of respiratory distress. He spent almost four weeks in a coma and unconscious and has been treated for kidney failure.

He remained in fair condition Thursday at a Las Vegas hospital.

Authorities suspect he was exposed to ricin, which can be lethal in tiny amounts. But the ricin was not discovered until two weeks later, when a cousin went to Bergendorff’s motel room to pick up his belongings. By then, the poison could have been undetectable in Bergendorff’s system, authorities have said.

Authorities have refused to say whether they plan to charge Bergendorff with state or federal crimes.

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