Written by Rodger Baker
March 5, 2008 | 1422 GMT
By Rodger Baker
A 57-year-old graphic designer and pizza deliveryman, Roger Von Bergendorff, remained in a coma in a Las Vegas-area hospital March 5, nearly two weeks after he apparently inhaled ricin powder, a biological toxin that later was found among his belongings. The FBI is investigating the case to determine how the potentially deadly substance came into Von Bergendorff’s possession — and, more important, what he planned to do with it.
Von Bergendorff was admitted to the hospital Feb. 14 after complaining of respiratory stress. On Feb. 26, police were summoned to the hotel where Von Bergendorff had been staying after the manager reported having found four firearms in Von Bergendorff’s room. While retrieving the firearms, police also discovered what they called an “anarchist-type” book, which had been marked at a page addressing ricin. Two days later, Von Bergendorff’s cousin notified authorities after he discovered yellowish powder in a vial and a plastic bag, some hypodermic needles and numerous castor beans (from which ricin is derived) while cleaning out Von Bergendorff’s room.
Von Bergendorff’s cousin, the hotel manager and the police who responded to the calls to the room showed no signs of ricin poisoning, and the room was declared clean. Police and investigators also searched the cousin’s Utah home, where Von Bergendorff had lived for some time, as well as storage units rented by Von Bergendorff. Initial reports suggest no further sign of ricin or its manufacture have been found, and authorities have said they are fairly certain that they have contained the ricin and that no residual environmental contamination has occurred.
What Von Bergendorff was doing with ricin and the syringes — and whether he manufactured the substance himself or acquired it — is unknown at this time. Because he remains in a coma, he is unable to answer questions. His respiratory condition is the likely result of inhaling ricin powder, though doctors have yet to confirm the cause. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there is no cure for ricin poisoning, but victims who do not die in the first five days after poisoning normally recover and survive. Authorities have said the case does not appear related to terrorism, though ricin is considered a potential terrorist tool, given its ease of manufacture and the deadly nature of the toxin.
The Castor Bean
Ricin, a toxin derived from the readily available castor bean (the plant is even used as an ornamental), is a by-product of the process used to extract castor bean oil, which is used in foods and various lubricants. However, those who choose to experiment with the beans for nefarious purposes would find it relatively simple to extract low-grade — though still potentially fatal — ricin.
Ricin acts against cells’ ribosomes, preventing the cells from producing proteins and thus leading to cell death and possibly organ failure and death. It normally is found in powder or pellet form, but it also can be suspended in liquids. Touching ricin might cause a rash, but is rarely fatal. However, when ingested, ricin can cause vomiting, bloody diarrhea, dehydration, a drop in blood pressure, organ failure and death. When inhaled, ricin causes respiratory distress and can lead to a build-up of fluid in the lungs, a drop in blood pressure, and respiratory failure and death. Injection is the most dangerous method of ricin poisoning, given that a dose as small as 500 micrograms — about the size of the head of a pin — is sufficient to begin shutting down cellular and organ functions. Because there is no cure for ricin poisoning, treatment focuses on addressing the symptoms and, if possible, flushing the ricin out of the system.
Ricin as a Weapon
Due to its ease of manufacture and its potency, ricin often is cited as an ideal terrorist weapon. But we take issue with that point of view, given that militants generally are looking for the biggest bang for their buck. This is not to say that recipes for making ricin and directions for deploying the agent have not appeared in al Qaeda training manuals. They have — specifically in Afghanistan. In addition, in 2003 several suspected Islamist militants were arrested in North London, where traces of ricin were found in their apartment.
However, in our experience, ricin most often has come into play as a method of targeted killings. Perhaps the most notorious attack using ricin occurred in London in 1978, when Bulgarian writer and dissident Georgi Markov was injected with a small pellet of ricin from the modified tip of an umbrella. Also, the suspects in the North London case were believed to have been planning to use ricin for assassination, possibly of the prime minister.
In the United States, ricin has been used in attempted and successful criminal assassinations and in suicides (including a suicide in Las Vegas in 2003). In the 1980s and 1990s, numerous cases came to light in which the suspects were found to have acquired or attempted to acquire ricin for targeted killings of spouses and family members, government and law enforcement officials or coworkers. In the early 1990s, several members of the Minnesota Patriots Council, a radical antitaxation group, acquired ricin and were accused of plotting to use it against federal officials. And in 1998, three members of the North American Militia in Michigan, who were indicted on weapons and conspiracy charges, were found in possession of videotapes explaining the process of extracting ricin from castor beans.
The problem with using ricin as a weapon of mass destruction is that, despite the small dose necessary for it to be lethal, delivering it on a wide scale is not a simple task. Inhalation and ingestion toxicity requires a higher dose than injection. And then there is the question of how to administer it. We have heard that thought has been given to soaking shrapnel from conventional explosives in ricin to add to the lethality of fragments, but the explosion itself would likely cause more damage than the ricin. If Von Bergendorff was preparing ricin for use as a weapon in a lone-wolf attack — and there is no confirmation that he was — he likely would have had better success using the four firearms he had in his hotel room.
However, ricin’s effectiveness as a discrete weapon of targeted assassination does raise potential concern for highly visible individuals such as political leaders, businesspeople and celebrities. As demonstrated in the Markov case, a handheld device such as an umbrella, a needle or a modified ring can be used to inject a small pellet of ricin into a target. This could be done in any number of situations, including in a receiving line or while the target is “pressing the flesh” on the campaign trail. In such a situation, the target would likely feel the injection and thus recognize the attacker immediately. So if the attacker is willing to get caught, ricin or other biological or chemical agents can be administered in public while the target interacts with a crowd.
Mass Destruction or Mass Disruption?
There is a great deal of concern about the potential for a biological attack inside the United States. However, although it is possible for nonstate actors to develop and deploy biological agents and toxins, they are more likely to employ relatively simple and proven methods of attack — using firearms and explosives — than some exotic weapon. Manufacture of biological agents using low technology most often yields small amounts and minimally potent products. Truly weaponized biological agents produced and prepared in quantities great enough for deployment as a weapon of mass destruction require much more sophisticated labs and weaponization facilities than most nonstate actors or lone wolves can or will ever create in their garages or storage sheds.
There is, however, the psychological component to consider — and biological agents indeed are effective weapons of mass disruption. The 2001 anthrax letters exemplify that point. Although the death toll from those letters was very small, the impact on the postal service and on government and corporate mail-handling procedures was massive. The letters resulted in the complete rewriting of the processes for handling and screening mail, triggered numerous hoaxes and false alarms, and shut down government and private facilities for weeks for decontamination. In other words, the disruptive effect of the anthrax letters was much more significant than the death toll, and the lasting impact on mail handling was much greater than the mail bombs of the Unabomber and others.
One of the most successful biological weapons attacks in the United States in recent history occurred in Oregon in 1984, when members of the Bhagwan Shri Rashneesh cult sprinkled salmonella bacteria on produce in grocery stores, on salad bars in local restaurants and on door handles around town. The attack, which left 751 people ill, was intended to prevent certain citizens from getting to the polls to vote for the competitor of a cult follower who was running for a judgeship. As in the anthrax attack, this caused a significant amount of disruption, though no fatalities.
Infectious diseases are even harder to culture and distribute in a mass attack. With many diseases, their slow progress makes them better incapacitants and disruptors than true weapons of mass destruction. To a great degree this is why, despite some tests by various nonstate militant groups, few biological attacks have been attempted.
In addition, the money, resources and effort that go into a biological program can be more cost-effectively spent on training and supplying fighters with conventional weapons. The train bombings in Madrid and London, as compared with the attempted sarin attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Tokyo, clearly demonstrate that conventional explosives have been more effective than homemade biological or chemical agents.
This is not to say that militants will stop trying to develop and experiment with biological agents. From a purely psychological perspective, these agents can have a significant impact, not to mention they can be quite effective as a tool of assassination and disruption. But to deploy a true biological weapon of mass destruction takes the resources of a state. Militant groups, given their limited resources and personnel, and often their space and time constraints, are more likely to focus on improving upon the tactics they already know.