SALT LAKE CITY — A hospitalized man who may have been sickened by the deadly toxin ricin was described by former neighbors on Monday as an introvert who often moved around and who loved animals.
Roger Von Bergendorff, who has been at Spring Valley Hospital in Las Vegas since Feb. 14 — unconscious, according to police and the FBI — also has had financial problems, filing for bankruptcy in 2000.
Authorities believe they recovered all the ricin in several vials found last week from the motel near the Las Vegas strip where Von Bergendorff had stayed. But they also checked a home in Riverton where Von Bergendorff had lived with a cousin, Thomas Tholen, as well as three storage containers linked to Von Bergendorff.
The FBI said the searches yielded no health threats. Tholen declined to comment Monday when reached by telephone. He said he had not spoken with investigators.
Las Vegas police said that firearms, an “anarchist-type textbook” and castor beans were found in the motel room. The book was tabbed at a spot containing information about ricin.
As little as 500 micrograms of ricin, an amount 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.
Von Roebuck, a CDC spokesman, said a sample of the substance arrived at the agency’s Atlanta headquarters on Monday, but that he didn’t know how long testing would take.
Public records show Von Bergendorff, 57, used at least six addresses between 1983 and 2007 in cities in Utah and California.
He had lived in Riverton for more than a year before moving to Las Vegas about a year ago, said former neighbor Tammy Ewell. He spent the last three months in a camper belonging to a neighbor, John Walster.
Ewell described Von Bergendorff Monday as an introverted man who wore down his hosts by living rent-free and taking advantage of their hospitality.
“He was just a quiet man who wasn’t assertive enough to get a job, to put it kindly,” she said.
She said Von Bergendorff wasn’t social with neighbors and often didn’t return a friendly wave. But while Von Bergendorff could be awkward around people, he loved animals, she said. She said he returned to Utah several times after he moved to Las Vegas to search for a lost cat.
“We had a few more conversations about how much his cat meant to him, and how he would do anything for this cat,” she said.
Tholen contacted motel management Feb. 22 — eight days after Von Bergendorff was hospitalized — 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 mortally ill after going at least a week without food or water, was euthanized.
After leaving Tholen’s house in June 2006, Von Bergendorff moved into the Walsters’ camper. Walster told The Salt Lake Tribune that Von Bergendorff confided in him about overcoming a drug addiction.
He described Von Bergendorff as quiet and generally nice but said he could be inexplicably “vindictive” at times. He told the newspaper that Von Bergendorff mentioned owning a gun but never acted violently, and declined invitations to Sunday dinners at the house.
Walster’s wife, Carol, said she never felt comfortable around Von Bergendorff. In August 2006, John Walster asked him to leave. Eventually, he said, he had to pack up Von Bergendorff’s things and put them outside. At that point Von Bergendorff left, saying he was taking a graphic design job in Las Vegas.
Von Bergendorff, the middle of three sons, grew up in La Mesa, Calif, and attended Grossmont College. He moved back to La Mesa to take care of his mother, Lola, who died in 2001, the newspaper said. Her obituary said Von Bergendorff lived in Reno, Nev., at that time. His father, Frederick, died in 1991.
Von Bergendorff declared bankruptcy in San Diego in 2000, court records show. In 1993, a civil judgment was entered against him for an unpaid auto loan of about $13,000 in Orange County, California.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.