Ricin is back in the headlines. Several vials of the deadly toxin turned up last week in a Las Vegas hotel room, along with firearms, a text book about anarchy, and castor seeds, which are used to make the poison. The room's occupant, Roger Von Bergendorff, was found in a coma in which he remains—the possible victim of the ricin found in his room.
Bergendorff was hospitalized on Feb. 14, but the ricin wasn't found until Feb. 27, when a relative retrieved his luggage because the hotel had not been paid in two weeks. Bergendorff reportedly also stayed at another hotel several miles away for a year before moving to the one where the ricin was discovered, and the FBI continues to investigate the case. Bergendorff's motives for possessing the ricin remain unclear.
The Las Vegas incident is the latest in a line of ricin-related episodes stretching back decades. The toxin first made news in 1978, when Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov died after assassins injected ricin into his leg on a London street. Ricin returned to the front pages in the 1990s, when several militia groups in the United States were found to be plotting to use it as a weapon. Ricin again made news after 9/11, when traces of it were mailed to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and others in Washington (no one was harmed in those still-unsolved cases) and when former secretary of state Colin Powell claimed in his now infamous speech to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 that Saddam Hussein was using ricin as one of his weapons of mass destruction. Ricin, which is poisonous if inhaled, injected, or ingested, is in its purest form about 500 times more powerful than cyanide—and about 1,000 times less powerful than botulinum, the most lethal toxin known to man.
Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, specializes in chemical and biological weapons issues and is an expert on ricin. He previously directed the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program and served with the Department of State, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He was a United Nations biological weapons inspector in Iraq in the 1990s and is the author of "Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons" and "The War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda."
Tucker spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno about the latest ricin scare in Las Vegas and shared some background and history of the toxin both in the United States and around the world. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Do we have any idea how this man obtained and made the ricin that was discovered in his Las Vegas hotel room?
Jonathan Tucker: We don't yet know, but castor beans, from which ricin is made, are widely available throughout the world. In developing countries such as China, Brazil and India, large quantities are still processed to extract castor oil as an industrial lubricant. Approximately 1 million tons are processed per year worldwide. What is left over during the cold-pressing process that is used to extract the castor oil from beans is a mash, which contains about 5 percent ricin. The toxins are then deactivated by heating them with steam. Then it's used to feed animals. But of course if you didn't deactivate the toxin and gave it to the animals, they would die.
Are these castor beans easy to acquire?
There is no longer production of castor beans as an agriculture crop in this country, but I believe the plants are still sold at nurseries as an ornamental; it's an attractive-looking plant. People who buy the plants would simply remove the seeds (beans) from the plant and process them. There are actually recipes available in books and on the Internet for extracting the toxin from the beans.
Does it surprise you that the plant is still available to purchase?
I am somewhat surprised, though you would have to take deliberate steps to go from owning the plant to extracting the toxin, and that is a felony. To produce a crude preparation of ricin is quite easy. But that's when you would find yourself in serious legal jeopardy.
How often is ricin used as a weapon in this country?
On our Web site we have a list of about 30 cases in which groups or individuals have acquired and/or used ricin for criminal or terrorist purposes.
What are some of the most egregious examples?
A large number of right-wing militia and patriot groups have produced crude preparations of ricin. In the mid-1990s the Minnesota Patriots Council, a militia organization in Alexandria, Minn., produced ricin as part of a plot to kill U.S. marshals, IRS agents and deputy sheriffs in the community. They were not highly educated, but some of them worked as carpet cleaners, so they were familiar with solvents and could follow the recipe from a right-wing publication that told them how to extract ricin. They ordered the beans from an ad in a right-wing magazine. The individual who placed the ad was Maynard Campbell, from Oregon, who is a well-known figure in the militia movement.
Was this Minnesota group prosecuted?
Yes. They were, in fact, the first to be prosecuted under the 1989 biological weapons antiterrorism act passed by Congress, and they were convicted in 1995. Four members were convicted. [Campbell, who had already been imprisoned for threatening federal officials in a 1992 standoff, was murdered by a fellow inmate in 1997.] One of the four men spent 48 months in prison. They got a pretty severe punishment. They never actually used ricin; they just acquired the toxin.
Any other examples?
The most famous case involved the Bulgarian dissident living in London who was killed by the Bulgarian secret police, who were supplied with ricin in a sophisticated delivery system by the Soviet KGB. It was an umbrella rigged to inject a tiny pellet containing ricin under the skin of the victim, and it was designed to kill without evidence of assassination, [as if he had died] of natural causes. But they also targeted someone else some weeks later, a dissident living in Paris who survived because the pellet was fired through layers of clothing. After that they looked at the first one and determined he had been killed in the same way. This was the real cloak-and-dagger use for ricin. There was also the case in 1995 when Thomas Lewis Levy was arrested for possessing 130 grams of ricin, which he was attempting to smuggle from Alaska into Canada. He ended up committing suicide in his prison cell before the trial. His motives remain mysterious. There was also the famous case in January 2003 when six Algerians were arrested in London on charges of plotting a terrorist attack. Authorities in that case discovered traces of ricin in a northern London apartment as well as castor beans and equipment. Just trace quantities.
What are the most recent cases in the United States involving ricin?
The latest high-profile incident before the current one in Las Vegas was in February 2004, when trace amounts were found in a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. No one was exposed or got sick.
Was there any post-9/11 legislation that made it tougher to acquire ricin or make it tougher on those who do?
Yes. Select agent regulations were strengthened in 2002. These regulations now require any lab that is using it for research to report possession of the substance to the Centers for Disease Control and report any transfers from one lab to another. Fail to report possession or transfer, and you face a severe punishment.
How long has ricin been around?
The U.S. government looked at ricin as a possible biological weapon of warfare many years ago. Iraq investigated ricin as biological weapon during the 1980s, prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But they did not produce ricin; they instead produced anthrax bacteria, botulinum toxin, and aflatoxin, produced by fungal mold. No one knows why they produced that third one. Iraq looked at ricin in artillery shells, but it proved to not have good applications for the military. But it is nonetheless a potent poison.
But its toxicity varies widely depending on how pure it is, doesn't it?
Yes, and it's very important to point out that while we don't know the purity level of the ricin found in the Las Vegas hotel room, typically the ricin that is processed by nonexperts using these anarchist books and Internet guides is less toxic and requires [greater quantities] to actually kill someone. The CDC lists on its Web site that it takes 500 micrograms of ricin, which is about the size of a pinhead, to kill a person. But this is only when the ricin is in its purest form. The threat posed by crude preparation of ricin by the militia groups and other nonexperts is often exaggerated.
So how alarmed should we be by this discovery of ricin in Las Vegas?
Well, we still don't know this person's motives, but there is a history of interest in ricin among extreme right-wing antigovernment groups, Fortunately, however, ricin it is not contagious. It's not like smallpox or plague, which can spread person-to-person. You have to come into immediate contact with it by inhaling or ingesting it or having it injected. It is not a major threat. It is probably on the same level of threat as cyanide or arsenic. It's a poison to kill a few. It could be refined into fine powder and then dispersed and could expose more, but it isn't optimal for that purpose. It's a large protein that tends to be inactivated if spread through the air. Not a major weapon of biological warfare or terrorism threat. It is a concern, however, mainly because of its availability and the ease with which it can be extracted, at least in crude form.
There is currently no antidote for ricin, right?
There is no FDA-approved, licensed antidote. But there are animal models in which immunization has been tested and which I suspect the military already has. Ricin is a poison. But it's not like the anthrax letter attacks in which an entire office building was contaminated. That was a highly refined powder that was volatile and spread through the ventilation system. Ricin does not have those properties.
And ricin is not contagious?
Correct. It is not contagious. You have to come into direct contact with it to be harmed. So people can still go to Las Vegas and they won't run any risk of being harmed.
Even if they stay in that same hotel?
Yes, as long as they stay in a different room.