Friday, February 29, 2008

RICIN POISONING IN LAS VEGAS: Potential check-out event?

"A man who stayed in a Las Vegas hotel room where ricin was discovered on Thursday has been hospitalized in critical condition since Feb. 14 with symptoms consistent with exposure to the deadly toxin, Las Vegas police said Friday," reported the New York Times hours ago.

"The man’s identity, age and hometown were being withheld on Friday as investigators tried to determine why ricin, as well as castor beans from which is it derived, were found in a room at an Extended Stay America hotel one mile west of the Las Vegas Strip.

"Deputy Chief Kathleen Suey said the man had been staying in the room where the ricin was found for an unknown length of time and was leasing the room when the substance was discovered. A man, said to be a relative or friend of the sick man, had gone into the room to retrieve the patient’s belongings when he found the vials of white powder and showed it to the hotel’s manager ..."

Initially, this sounds like an attempt at suicide. One also would not wish to entirely rule out extreme stupidity, like the snorting of castor seed powder. Whatever the case, it is an unusual story, one that will eventually add a brief but fascinating footnote to the history of the poison.

"“Ricin has no medical uses other than cancer research," said Captain Joseph Lombardo, head of the Homeland Security unit for Las Vegas police to the Times. "An individual citizen, other than being involved in cancer research or cancer prevention, would not have any legal means or proper means of having that."

Well, just you hold on there now lil' pardner from Homeland Security.

Your friendly neighborhood GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow did a quick survey a year or so ago and found castor seeds to be common items on eBay. And such is still the case as seen with this eye-popping search.

The means with which to attempt to poison oneself with ricin are not hard to come by.

At one time in the distant past of this country, castor plants existed to process castor seeds for fertilizer and oil. They were not staffed by professional hazmat teams. The dust of castor mash was not generally considered to be a great hazard although reports of it causing allergic reactions and respiratory symptoms exist in the literature.

Because castor seeds contain five percent protein and this is a nitrogen source, the mash was used as fertilizer. It also had application in attempts to kill insect infestations afflicting golf courses although there is little or no evidence that it was effective at this.

Also see this piece from DD blog last year on the commonality of decorative castor plants in Brooklyn.

Since the individual has been hospitalized for two weeks, he may yet survive. If a suboptimal dose is received and does not kill, the victim eventually recovers. Most newspaper articles tend to emphasize the lethality of ricin based upon estimates derived from the activity of pure ricin. But the mash of castor seeds is not 100 percent ricin. Indeed, it is far from it.

Original at the New York Times.


From wire reports:

"Firearms and an 'anarchist type textbook' were found in the same motel room where several vials of the deadly toxin ricin was found," police told the Associated Press today.

"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.

"It doesn’t make you a terrorist to have an anarchist-type textbook," said one law enforcement official on the scene.

In reality, if you're living in Britain, you're a Muslim and you're caught with such reading material, it does. Under current anti-terrorism laws in the UK such reading matter is considered seditious and possession of it, unless you're a member of the press or an academic expert, gets you sent over. See "Documents Discussed Here Get You Jailed" here, "The Jailbird's Bookshelf" here, and one of the all-time reading favorites on this site, "From The Poisoner's Handbook to the Botox Shoe of Death" here.

So far, the scene fits the general standard of very white American middle-aged gun-loving weirdo dude encompassed by many ricin cases in the United States. See here in "Assorted Fiends, Criminals and Kooks" for a survey of this not-so-motley crew done by your friendly neighborhood GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow a couple years ago.

Update II (Sunday):

Associated Press reports federal agents searching the home of Roger von Bergendorff in Salt Lake City, Utah. Bergendorff is the hospitalized man at the center of the investigation. "Health officials were still trying to confirm whether Von Bergendorff's respiratory ailment stemmed from ricin exposure," reported the news agency.

Whatever von Bergendorff is suffering from, if he survives and is released from the hospital, the Feds will eventually charge him with the standard ricin offense which makes it illegal to mash castor seeds for the purpose of having a crude ricin powder. He'll also get tagged with the cost of clean-up. Attempting to make a toxic weapon with ricin, even just for so, gets you anywhere from two to fifteen years depending on circumstances. Intellectual curiosity is not a defense that works.

DD wrote has written about such cases in the past. Please note "To the Bighouse for Ricin Possession" here and here at GlobalSecurity.Org. Indictments of Denys Ray Hughes and Steven Ekberg, two white American men convicted on ricin charges, are found with the text archived at GlobalSecurity.


Blogger Herr Oberst said...

"It doesn’t make you a terrorist to have an anarchist-type textbook"

Wow. I had to snort in disbelief that any responsible law enforcement official would say such a thing. It may not make you a terrorist, but you rise pretty high on the suspicion list. I bet the FBIers have the anarchist cookbook on their "library watch list."

8:30 AM  

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