LAS VEGAS – A man who sparked a panic when ricin was allegedly found in his motel room has been charged with possession of a deadly toxin — part of what authorities said was a vague plot to poison his enemies.
Roger Bergendorff was arrested Wednesday upon his release from a hospital where he had been treated since Feb. 14 for respiratory ailments and failing kidneys.
Authorities allege that he possessed the ricin as part of a scheme to hurt unspecified enemies. They do not believe it had anything to do with terrorism.
Over the course of several interviews with the FBI, "Bergendorff characterized the production of ricin as an 'exotic idea,"' prosecutors said in a six-page complaint.
"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," prosecutors allege. "However, he maintained that he never acted on those thoughts or plans."
Bergendorff summoned an ambulance from his motel room near the Las Vegas Strip on Feb. 14, and authorities said ricin — so deadly even in minuscule amounts that its only legal use is for cancer research — was later found at the motel in several vials.
Seven people, including the motel manager, two other employees and three police officers, were decontaminated at the scene and taken to hospitals for examination, but none have shown any signs of being affected by ricin.
Bergendorff 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.
Speaking from a wheelchair, Bergendorff told a federal judge in his initial court appearance that it was "not in my blood" to use the deadly poison.
"I didn't use that stuff," said Bergendorff, an unemployed graphic designer, "because I couldn't."
The charges carry a possible penalty of 30 years in federal prison and a $750,000 fine. The judge ordered that Bergendorff, 57, remain in custody until a preliminary hearing May 2.
Officials said Bergendorff's symptoms were consistent with ricin exposure, but the source of his illness may never be certain because all traces of the substance are eliminated from the body within days. The ricin in his motel room was found well after he got sick.
Bergendorff's lawyer, Paul Riddle, denied his client was sickened by ricin. "His poor health is not a result of exposure to ricin," Riddle told the judge. He said Bergendorff fell ill with pneumonia and kidney failure, resulting from a mental and emotional downturn after his older brother died in January.
Bergendorff's cousin Thomas Tholen, 54, was charged this month in Salt Lake City with failing to report a crime. His lawyer, Greg Skordas, denied Tholen knew Bergendorff had ricin.
Prosecutors said Bergendorff told them he first made ricin in San Diego in the late 1990s, and later made the substance while living in Reno and in the basement of his cousin's house in Riverton, Utah.
Police and homeland security officials have said they found no ricin contamination in any place Bergendorff stayed.