February 29, 2008, Las Vegas, Nevada - police are called to a hotel where two weeks earlier a man had called an ambulance complaining of severe breathing distress. Soon after the man slipped into a coma. This might sound like any other ordinary 911 call that EMS responded to and took an individual to the hospital. An ordinary 911 call except for what police found in the man's hotel... several vials of ricin, a deadly poison.
The room had been rented to a 57-year-old man later identified by a cousin as Roger Von Bergendorff a loner who had drifted around staying with relative or friends until he wore out his welcome. The hotel room also contained a supply of castor beans from which ricin can be extracted, a copy of "The Anarchists Cookbook" with a tab at the page on how to make ricin, and a number of firearms.
Local, State and FBI investigators have not been able to find any link to a terrorist cell, group, or to any specific terrorist threat. Von Bergendorff was distraught over a number of issues including that he had lost his job, his dog was terminally sick, and that he did not have enough money to travel to his brother's funeral. The purpose for the ricin and guns was unclear and police have been unable to talk to him until March 14 when he began to come out of the coma. In February of 2003 a Japanese man involved in slot machine distribution in Las Vegas committed suicide by injecting himself with a solution of ricin. Could there be a connection?
What is Ricin? - Ricin is a waste product that arises from the processing of castor beans for their oil. Castor beans were widely grown in gardens by farmers in the early 1900s because the plant possesses natural insecticide properties. Because ricin is a deadly toxin caster beans have been banned from the United States. However, castor beans are readily available in many markets throughout the world including India, China, Turkey and South Korea. The wet mash material left after the oil extraction, the ricin containing material, is available by the ton. The annual world-wide castor oil production is 460,000 tons requiring over one-million tons of seeds and producing over 500,000 tons of wet mash. Castor beans and wet mash can be purchased over the internet from a variety of websites.
A Deadly Poison - After the Second World War the US Army developed ricin as one of series of chemical warfare agents because of its extreme toxicity. An amount of pure ricin as small (500 micrograms) as the head of a pin injected into a person or inhaled as a mist is fatal. There is no known antidote for the ricin toxin or treatment that can slow or halt its effects. The toxin works by attacking cells and shutting down their ability to make proteins. The cells die as a result and all organs in the body can be affected. The lungs are usually the first cells to die and this causing distressed breathing and eventual suffocation.
Agent W - Ricin is so effective that the Army included it in it's arsenal of chemical and biological warfare weapons. Ricin was called "Agent W" and even though it is a chemical agent it was listed as a biological agent because it was derived from biological material. Because it is a chemical and not a living organism like Anthrax it is not contagious and creates no infection that can be passed on to others. However, in a ricin incident the agent can be transferred to first responders and law enforcement people by contact with the contaminated clothing of exposed victims or from surface like tables, counters, etc. that have come in contact with the material. This makes a crime scene where ricin has been used, like the Las Vegas Hotel room, a hazardous material site and must be approached with all of the necessary HazMat safety procedures.
A terrorist Threat - The Department of Homeland Security has stated that there is no threat of terrorism associated with the Las Vegas incident. However, ricin and the manuals on how to make it have repeatedly been found in terrorist locations of Al-Qaeda and other groups in Iraq and Afghanistan. Highly purified ricin ground into a very fine powder can be sprayed into the air to attack small numbers of people such as in a mall. Introduction of this material into the ventilation system of a building or mall would quickly spread the toxic material throughout a large area affecting many more people. This material is considered as toxic as Sarin (Agent GB) the chemical agent released in a Tokyo subway in March of 1995 in an act of domestic terrorism perpetrated by a radical religious group. It is possible to put ricin into an improvised explosive device (IED) and set it off remotely with a cell phone or some other electronic device. A small explosive charge could disperse the finely powdered ricin over a large area. While some material would be destroyed by the heat of the explosion if constructed properly a large ricin load could still be delivered to a target area.
On March 4, 2008 the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) issued a classified report outlining their concern about terrorist attacks on train and train stations. Their main concern was a so-called super bomb called the "Mubtakar" an IED that releases cyanide gas. However, ricin would also be an effective agent to release in the confined space of a train or train station. City subways are also potential targets as was demonstrated by the Tokyo Sarin incident.
Ricin Production Laboratory - A clandestine laboratory for ricin production would look very similar to a clandestine drug production laboratory manufacturing meth or other street drugs. In a sophisticated lab operation, flasks, beakers and standard laboratory glassware would be present. For the most part, however, the ricin lab would contain large containers (glass, plastic, or metal pots) where the mash could be stirred into a slurry with water. There would also be some kind of large filter devices; something probably as simple as s large kitchen pasta or vegetable strainers into which filter paper is placed. The basic procedure for ricin production could be carried out in a garage, basement, an abandoned building or even a small bathroom. The oil is removed from the castor beans by crushing them and then putting the material through some type of rollers which squeeze the oil out and leave the wet solid material. Something as simple as a kitchen rolling pin could be used if the mixture is placed between sheets of cheesecloth and then repeatedly rolled over until all the oil is squeezed out. The basic procedure for ricin production involves making a water slurry of the wet mash material then filtering off the solid material. The ricin which is water soluble is then precipitated with the addition of sodium sulfate and filtered again. This process is repeated over and over until a material of the desired purity is obtained. Then the resulting ricin is dried and the white powder is ground into a fine powder.
Is ricin a threat in your jurisdiction? Probably not but law enforcement needs to be aware of this material, its ease of production, and its deadly effects. It is a material that could be used in some foreign terrorist event or by some domestic group that wants to make some sort of statement.