1 of 2
Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Dressed in hazmat suits, law enforcement officials start the search Sunday of a Riverton home connected to a ricin scare in Las Vegas.

RIVERTON — Dressed in hazmat suits, authorities searched a home and several storage units for any connection to vials of deadly ricin that were found in a Las Vegas motel room.

FBI agents executed a search warrant on Sunday in connection with the investigation, which centers around Roger Von Bergendorff, who is hospitalized in a coma in Nevada. He once lived with his cousin — Tom Tholen — in this quiet suburban neighborhood.

"The search warrant and affidavit have been sealed," FBI Special Agent in Charge Tim Fuhrman told reporters. "This investigation involves possible contamination of a highly toxic substance, ricin."

Homes surrounding Tholen's house near 13400 South and 3000 West were evacuated for most of the day while authorities searched the rambler-style residence. A couple of blocks of 13400 South were closed for the day while the searches were conducted.

"They found some chemicals they do have to remove. They didn't say what," said Tammy Ewell, who lives across the street from the Tholens. She left for several hours on Sunday at the request of law enforcement.

Many neighbors were more curious than afraid.

"Is there ricin in there?" a woman asked a Salt Lake County Sheriff's deputy manning the barricade.

"They don't know yet," he replied.

Police, firefighters, National Guardsmen, health officials and other emergency responders converged on Tholen's home to search for — and deal with — any hazardous substance. They set up large-scale tents for an intensive decontamination process. Those involved in searching the home itself were covered head to toe in protective gear and wore breathing apparatus.

At 9528 Bagley Park Road in West Jordan, a similar search was conducted on several storage units that were rented by Von Bergendorff, who has been hospitalized since Feb. 14 in Las Vegas with symptoms similar to ricin poisoning.

Von Bergendorff, 57, lived with Tholen until recently. He moved to Las Vegas and was living at an extended-stay motel when he fell ill. Tholen, 53, found the vials of ricin in the room and took them to the motel office. Six people had to be decontaminated when it was learned it was ricin. On Saturday, Tholen's wife and daughter were decontaminated when they arrived home from Las Vegas, authorities said. None tested positive for ricin exposure.

Tholen is back in Utah and has been cooperating with authorities.

"He's still continuing to talk to us," FBI Special Agent Juan Becerra said Sunday. "Everything he's told us to this point we've been able to investigate and corroborate. At this point, we have no reason to doubt what he is saying."

Von Bergendorff is unconscious and unable to communicate with Las Vegas police.

"Clearly we are trying to determine the circumstances with respect to Mr. Von Bergendorff's association with ricin," Fuhrman said.

Authorities are trying to figure out how the vials came to be in Von Bergendorff's motel room. The FBI refused to say if either man is considered a suspect or a "person of interest" in their investigation.

"At this point in time, we don't have any indications of any connection to any terrorist act or terrorist activity," Fuhrman said. "That is something we continue look at."

On Friday, Las Vegas Metro police revealed that guns, an "anarchist-type" textbook and castor beans — from which ricin is made — were found in the room where the poison was discovered. Police have said the book was "tabbed" to a page on ricin.

While authorities believe they have isolated the locations where the ricin may be, FBI agents in Utah refused to say if there was anything found in the Riverton neighborhood that Von Bergendorff once called home.

"That's the important question we're trying to find out right now: Why that was created, if it was created in this home and, if in fact, it does create any kind of health threat for the public," Becerra said.

Riverton city leaders were trying to calm fears of a public health threat. Riverton Mayor Bill Applegarth said he did not believe there was a health threat in the Tholen home or anywhere else.

"It still makes you nervous," said Applegarth. "I've been overwhelmed with the response from the agencies."

Neighbors described the Tholen family as "good people," and very friendly. Von Bergendorff has been described as distant, never returning a neighborly wave or really speaking with others on this street. Others said he was an avid animal lover, who cared deeply for his German shepherd dog and his cats. His dog was euthanized after being found starving in the motel room on Feb. 22.

As little as 500 micrograms of ricin — an amount that would be about the size of the head of a pin — is lethal. It can kill in three to five days.

"You can breathe it in or you can ingest it by eating something contaminated with ricin," said Jana Coombs, a biological emergency response coordinator for the Utah Department of Health. "You can also get skin exposure, although it does not go through your skin into your body. It's usually just localized at that point."

Ricin poisoning symptoms are flu-like, with difficulty breathing if inhaled. Diarrhea and vomiting are common if ingested. It is not contagious, Coombs said.

E-mail: [email protected]