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Man who had ricin sentenced to prison

A man who was unconscious in a hospital when ricin was found in his Las Vegas motel room has been sentenced to 3 1/2 years in federal prison for possessing the deadly toxin.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A man who made enough ricin to kill hundreds of people — and kept it with him for a decade as he moved to various Western states — was sentenced Monday to 3 1/2 years in federal prison for possessing the deadly toxin.

Roger Bergendorff said at his sentencing in Las Vegas that he never intended to hurt anyone.

"I know it sounds crazy. I made it just to have — and that's why I kept it," he said.

Authorities have characterized the 57-year-old Bergendorff as a troubled man, but no terrorist. Their concern had been heightened in February, when the ricin was found in the unemployed graphic designer's Las Vegas motel room while he lay unconscious in a hospital bed.

Never motivated to use poison
Bergendorff detailed a life of personal torment and grief before he was sentenced, but said he never was motivated to use the deadly poison.

"I fear God's judgment," he said.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Jones told Bergendorff that he needed to understand the severity of his crime.

"You not only proved a material threat to yourself, you proved a material threat to everyone around you when you possessed this stuff," said Jones, who also imposed a $7,500 fine, which he said was designed to force Bergendorff into a work release program.

The sentencing ended a dramatic saga that once raised fears Bergendorff had poisoned himself while plotting a biological attack on tourists or unsuspecting gamblers on the Las Vegas Strip, home to nearly 138,000 hotel rooms.

In a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty Aug. 4 to possession of a biological toxin and possession of unregistered handgun silencers. Bergendorff's sentence was five months longer than recommended by prosecutors. He could have faced up to 30 years in prison and $750,000 in fines if convicted of all charges against him.

In interviews with The Associated Press, Bergendorff has admitted distilling the lethal powder from the beans of a backyard castor plant while he lived in San Diego in 1998. He said he carried it with him for a decade while living in Reno, in Utah and in Las Vegas.

'Harmless outlet for my anger'
Bergendorff said years of grief over dead family members, substance abuse problems and lost girlfriends led him to develop the toxin, which he considered a "harmless outlet for my anger" at the time.

"I really didn't think God had it out for me, but it felt that way," he said.

He has been steadfast that he would never have released it, accidentally or on purpose.

"Absolutely not. Zero chance. I had it triple-sealed," he said during one of a series of telephone calls to the AP from jail days after his guilty plea.

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.

Bergendorff summoned an ambulance to his motel room Feb. 14, complaining of respiratory distress. He spent almost four weeks unconscious at a Las Vegas hospital and was in critical condition for several more weeks.

Cousin alerted authorities
A cousin, Thomas Tholen of Riverton, Utah, alerted authorities Feb. 28 after finding ricin powder in the room while he retrieved Bergendorff's belongings. The motel was evacuated and decontaminated; seven people were taken to hospitals for treatment but no serious injuries were reported.

Bergendorff has insisted that ricin did not cause the breathing problems that led to his hospitalization.

Authorities suspected Bergendorff was exposed to ricin, but said they couldn't be sure because the poison breaks down in the body within days. Bergendorff said he had been overcome by stress following a brother's death in January.

Authorities said Bergendorff had about 4 grams of crude but lethal ricin. Federal prosecutor Gregory Damm told a federal judge in April that he believed it was enough to kill more than 500 people.

Weapons also found in motel room
Police said they also found three handguns and a rifle in the extended-stay motel room where Bergendorff lived with his dog and two cats a few blocks off the Las Vegas Strip, along with castor beans and books with instructions about how to manufacture ricin. A charge of possession of firearms without serial numbers was dropped in Bergendorff's plea deal.

Tholen, 54, was sentenced Oct. 22 to two years' probation after pleading guilty Aug. 11 to one federal charge of knowing about a crime but failing to report it. Prosecutors alleged Tholen knew Bergendorff had ricin when he lived at Tholen's house in the Salt Lake City suburbs in 2005-06.