LAS VEGAS – An unemployed graphic designer who authorities believe was nearly killed by ricin was arrested Wednesday on federal charges of possessing the deadly toxin in what he described as an "exotic idea," never carried out, to poison unspecified enemies.
Roger Bergendorff was arrested upon his release from the hospital where he had been treated since Feb. 14.
He is charged with possession of a biological toxin and two weapons offenses stemming from materials authorities said were found Feb. 26 and Feb. 28 in his room at an extended-stay motel several blocks off the Las Vegas Strip.
"He was released from the hospital and he's in custody," said FBI Special Agent Joseph Dickey, spokesman for the bureau's Las Vegas office.
The charges carry a possible penalty of 30 years in federal prison and a $750,000 fine. Bergendorff, 57, was scheduled to appear Wednesday afternoon before a federal judge in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas.
Prosecutors allege in a six-page complaint that Bergendorff obtained castor beans by mail in June 2002 and made ricin from them while living in Reno and in the basement of his cousin's house in Riverton, Utah.
Cancer research is the only legal use for ricin, which has no antidote and can be lethal in amounts the size of the head of a pin.
Authorities do not allege Bergendorff's possession of ricin had anything to do with terrorism, according to court documents.
"Bergendorff characterized the production of ricin as an 'exotic idea,"' the complaint said.
Over the course of several interviews with the FBI, "Bergendorff admitted that there have been people who have made him mad over the years and he had thoughts about causing them harm to the point of making some plans," the complaint said. "However, he maintained that he never acted on those thoughts or plans."
Officials say Bergendorff's symptoms were consistent with ricin exposure, but it may never be certain that the toxin sickened him because all traces of the substance are eliminated from the body within days, and the ricin in his hotel room was found well after he got sick.
Bergendorff's cousin Thomas Tholen, 54, was charged this month in Salt Lake City with misprision of felony, which officials said means he had knowledge of a crime but failed to report it. Bergendorff told investigators that Tholen was not involved in the production of the toxin.
Roger Bergendorff's brother, Erich Bergendorff, said he spoke with him Tuesday by telephone.
"He just said he wasn't going to face charges, but I don't think that was based on fact," said Erich Bergendorff, who lives in Escondido, Calif. "It's my impression that he didn't understand the hazard he posed."
Erich Bergendorff said he did not know whether his brother had spoken to an attorney.
Bergendorff, who lived with his dog and two cats, summoned an ambulance to his Las Vegas motel room Feb. 14, complaining of respiratory distress. He spent almost four weeks unconscious at a Las Vegas hospital. Family members said he also was treated for kidney failure.
Tholen was collecting Bergendorff's belongings from the motel room Feb. 28 when he gave a motel manager a plastic bag containing several vials of what turned out to be ricin powder.
The complaint characterizes the ricin found in Las Vegas as "crude."
Police and homeland security officials have said they found no ricin contamination in any place Bergendorff stayed.