Monday, March 3, 2008

FBI Finishes Search For Ricin In West Jordan And Riverton, Utah While Roger Von Bergendorff Lies Unconscious In Las Vegas Hospital

FBI agents executed a search warrant on Sunday March 2nd, 2008 in connection with the investigation, which centers around Roger Von Bergendorff, who is hospitalized in a coma in Nevada. He once lived with his cousin — Tom Tholen — in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Riverton, Utah. Full stories published in the Deseret Morning News, the Salt Lake Tribune, and aired on KSL Channel 5, HERE and HERE as well as KTVX Channel 4, HERE and HERE. Pictured above left, the Riverton home searched.

"The search warrant and affidavit have been sealed," FBI Special Agent in Charge Tim Fuhrman told reporters. "This investigation involves possible contamination of a highly toxic substance, ricin."

Homes surrounding Tholen's house at 3004 West 13400 South were evacuated for most of the day while authorities searched the rambler-style residence. Three households immediately adjacent to the Tholen residence voluntarily evacuated, while others stayed in place but remained indoors while the search was conducted. One of the families evacuating was the family of Brad and Tammy Ewell, who were willing to share their thoughts.

Everyone living in a 300 yard perimeter of the Tholen's house got a knock on the door early in the morning. "Knock on the door 7:15 or 7:20 woke us up and said we needed to evacuate a 300 yard perimeter," said Brad Ewell (pictured above left), who lives directly across the street from the Tholens. The mayor of Riverton, along with a lieutenant, told the family they had about 30 minutes to get out of their house. Tammy Ewell then chimed in, "We grabbed our stuff for the day, packed up our vehicles and came on down the in-laws, and they were gracious to open their doors so early in the morning." Finally, Brad said, "[We] couldn't get all the pets out of the house, you know, don't have a place for the cats, and so hopefully the chemical is contained."

The Ewells say they weren't told much about the investigation, or what's going on. They were just told they should leave their house. But they weren't upset about the disruption, since nearby in-laws took them in temporarily. Finally, around 3 P.M. they were told they could go back home, and that their home was not contaminated.

Police, firefighters, National Guardsmen, health officials and other emergency responders converged on Tholen's home to search for — and deal with — any hazardous substance. They set up large-scale tents for an intensive decontamination process. Those involved in searching the home itself were covered head to toe in protective gear and wore breathing apparatus.

And at 9528 Bagley Park Road in West Jordan, a similar search was conducted on three separate storage units that were rented by Von Bergendorff, who has been hospitalized since February 14th in Las Vegas with symptoms similar to ricin poisoning.

Roger Von Bergendorff, 57, lived with Tholen until June 2006. He moved to Las Vegas and was living at an extended-stay motel when he fell ill. When Tholen, 53, found out about it, he alerted police to the connection with him. Tholen then flew down to Las Vegas, and found the vials of ricin in Von Bergendorff's room and took them to the motel office. Six people had to be decontaminated when it was learned it was ricin. On Saturday, Tholen's wife and daughter were decontaminated when they arrived home from Las Vegas, authorities said. None tested positive for ricin exposure.

Tholen is back in Utah and has been cooperating with authorities. "He's still continuing to talk to us," FBI Special Agent Juan Becerra said Sunday. "Everything he's told us to this point we've been able to investigate and corroborate. At this point, we have no reason to doubt what he is saying."

Authorities are trying to figure out how the vials came to be in Von Bergendorff's motel room. The FBI refused to say if either man is considered a suspect or a "person of interest" in their investigation. "At this point in time, we don't have any indications of any connection to any terrorist act or terrorist activity," Fuhrman said. "That is something we continue look at."

On Friday February 29th, Las Vegas Metro police revealed that guns, an "anarchist-type" textbook and castor beans — from which ricin is made — were found in the room where the poison was discovered. Police have said the book was "tabbed" to a page on ricin. As little as 500 micrograms of ricin — an amount that would be about the size of the head of a pin — is lethal. It can kill in three to five days. Ricin poisoning symptoms are flu-like, with difficulty breathing if inhaled. Diarrhea and vomiting are common if ingested. It is not contagious.

While authorities believe they have isolated the locations where the ricin may be, FBI agents in Utah refused to say if there was anything found in the Riverton neighborhood that Von Bergendorff once called home. "That's the important question we're trying to find out right now: Why that was created, if it was created in this home and, if in fact, it does create any kind of health threat for the public," Becerra said.

Neighbors described the Tholen family as "good people," and very friendly. In contrast, Von Bergendorff has been described as distant, never returning a neighborly wave or really speaking with others on this street. One neighbor even described Von Bergendorff as "socially regressive". Others said he was an avid animal lover, who cared deeply for his German shepherd dog and his cats. His dog was euthanized after being found starving in the motel room on February 22nd.

According to a Los Angeles Times story, Von Bergendorff spent much of his adult life in Orange and San Diego counties. Public records indicate that several tax liens were filed against Von Bergendorff in San Diego County in the mid-1990s. He also filed for bankruptcy in 2000, records show. After being evicted from a Utah apartment a few years ago, he moved into his cousin Tom Tholen's basement.

Another Salt Lake Tribune story provides some more background on Von Bergendorff's Utah sojourn. After Von Bergendorff ran up the Tholens' bill using dial-up Internet service and never even offered to help out financially, he quickly wore out his welcome at the Tholens' in June 2006, he moved into a camper trailer in the garage of Tholen's neighbor, John Walster, for three months. Walster lives across the street and three houses down from Tholen.

Walster took in Von Bergendorff, a 57-year-old graphic designer, after he overstayed his welcome at Tholen's house. The men had met at the local LDS ward, where Von Bergendorff had talked about overcoming a drug addiction, Walster said. When he wasn't delivering pizza part-time, Von Bergendorff mostly spent time with just his two cats and his German shepherd, Walster said. He was polite -- calling the Walsters "Brother Walster" and "Sister Walster" -- and declined invitations to Sunday dinners at the house.

Walster described Von Bergendorff as down-on-his-luck but nice, a loner who could be inexplicably "vindictive" at times. Von Bergendorff mentioned owning a handgun before, Walster said, but never acted violently. "I never felt comfortable around him," Carol Walster said. "There was just something about him."

In August 2006, Walster said, he asked Von Bergendorff to leave. He eventually packed up Von Bergendorff's things and put them outside. Von Bergendorff told the couple he was leaving for a graphic design job in Las Vegas. So, to paraphrase the neighbor Brad Ewell, two Good Samaritans got bitten.

The most recent story from the Las Vegas end was provided by the Las Vegas Review-Journal on March 1st.

Commentary: This story is absolutely nutso. The Feds can't even make sense of it - that's why they're keeping such a close hold on it. They don't even know enough about it to call it terrorism. There's too little to go on right now.

In the event it's found to be terrorism, most likely this guy was strictly a lone wolf, based on his "socially regressive" personality. I could envision a guy like this, apparently unsuccessful at relationships and employment, trying something like this to give meaning to his life.

Sad, perplexing story.

No comments: