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Vegas police find deadly ricin in motel room

Firearms and an “anarchist type textbook” were found in the same motel room where several vials of the deadly toxin ricin was found, police said Friday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Firearms and an “anarchist type textbook” were found in the same motel room where several vials of the deadly toxin ricin was found, police said Friday.

The room was most recently occupied by a 57-year-old man who has been in critical condition with breathing problems at a hospital for more than two weeks.

Las Vegas police said there was no apparent link to terrorist activity, and no indication of any spread of the deadly substance beyond the several vials of powder found in a plastic bag in the man’s room on Thursday. But what the ricin was doing there remained a mystery.

A pinprick of ricin is enough to kill.

“Six to eight hours, you’re going to start showing symptoms,” said Greg Evans, director of the Institute for Biosecurity at Saint Louis University in Missouri.

Capt. Joseph Lombardo said at a press conference late Friday that the book was tabbed at a spot with information about ricin. Lombardo did not give more information about the book or specify what kinds of weapons were found.

A friend or relative of the sick man found the vials after going to the Extended Stay America motel, several blocks west of the Las Vegas Strip, to retrieve his belongings, police Deputy Chief Kathy Suey said.

Seven people decontaminated
Tests by police homeland security officers, the Nevada National Guard and a laboratory in Las Vegas came back positive for ricin, she said. A cleanup of the motel has been completed, she added.

Seven people, including the man who found the ricin, the manager, two other motel 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, Suey said. All were released overnight.

“There is no information to lead us to believe that this is the result of any terrorist activity or related to any possible terrorist activity,” Suey said. “We don’t have any reason to believe any of it left the property.”

Police cordoned off the hotel and told residents to stay in their rooms. The cordon was lifted early Friday morning, and the motel has been open since then.

Lombardo said precautionary tests were also done a room in the Excalibur hotel, where the friend or relative had been saying. He said they came back negative.

To whom did the ricin belong?
Suey said the manufacture of ricin is a crime, but it was not clear the substance found belonged to the man, who was hospitalized in critical condition Feb. 14 after summoning an ambulance to the motel and complaining of respiratory distress.

The man was unconscious and unable to speak, Suey said, adding that he was not currently a suspect.

“We don’t know an awful lot about him,” Suey said. “We don’t even know that it was him that was in possession of the ricin.” She said she could not say how much ricin was in the vials.

Cancer research is the only legitimate reason for anyone to have ricin, Evans said.

Ricin is made from processing castor beans, and can be extremely lethal. As little as 500 micrograms, or about the size of the head of a pin, can kill a human, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Castor beans also were found in the man’s room, officials said.

An American Medical Response paramedic crew that took the man to the hospital about 11 a.m. Feb. 14 had no indication of ricin poisoning, AMR general manager John Wilson said.

Wilson would not say whether the two paramedics who handled the call entered the man’s room, but said neither have shown symptoms of exposure.

Naomi Jones, spokeswoman for Spring Valley Hospital, said the patient was in critical condition when he arrived at the hospital. She said Las Vegas police contacted the hospital Wednesday about a possible ricin exposure investigation.

“The investigation started two days ago, that’s when we began cooperating,” Jones said. “The patient who has been exposed is not contagious to anyone else, as ricin has to be injected, ingested or inhaled.”

Police refused to comment on whether the hospital was contacted Wednesday, a day before police said the ricin was found.

Evans said the fact that the man suffered respiratory illness suggested he was exposed to a powder fine enough to float in the air.

“If he went to the hospital with difficulty breathing, he actually inhaled it,” Evans said. “For some reason he opened the vial and it must have been aerosolized.”

Multiple vials would probably contain enough ricin to sicken many people if it was spread, for example, around a buffet table or sprayed in a closed room.

“If it was aerosolized in a confined space then it certainly could harm dozens of people,” he said.

No threat believed to remain at scene
Police said they had spent 12 hours containing and cleaning up the site.

“My understanding is cleanup has been done,” said Dr. Lawrence Sands, chief health officer of the Southern Nevada Health District. “There should not be a threat to anybody at this time.”

The motel room had been unoccupied since the man was hospitalized. Someone who knew the sick man found the ricin in the room and brought it to the apartment manager, Suey said.

“He claimed to be a relative. We haven’t confirmed that yet whether he is a relative or a friend,” she said.

The manager had begun an eviction because the sick man hadn’t paid his bill, and the friend or relative had gone to retrieve his items, she said.

Several pets found in hotel room
Suey said there were several pets in the room when officers arrived. A dog was found dead but the animal had gone at least a week without food or water, Suey said, and she did not attribute the death to ricin.

Evans, of the Institute for Biosecurity, said that if ricin is inhaled, symptoms would include difficulty breathing, fever, cough and nausea. Injection would lead to vomiting and severe diarrhea. Eventually these symptoms would progress to seizures, hallucination, bloody urine and damage to the kidney, liver and spleen and death.

Tom Obrig, an expert on ricin who teaches nephrology at the University of Virginia, said there have been about 700 reports over the years of people trying to commit suicide by eating castor beans.

“Usually it doesn’t work because it’s not digested well,” he said.

For the most part, however, the toxin has more of a cloak-and-dagger reputation linked more closely to spies and assassins. He recalled one particularly famous murder in 1978 involving Georgi Ivanov Markov, a Bulgarian dissident in London.

Markov “was standing on a corner waiting for a bus and some spy came along and injected a pellet in his leg from an umbrella,” Obrig said. “The guy died three days later. It was traced back by Scotland Yard who figured the only thing potent enough to do that was ricin.”