Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2022

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Incident puts emergency responders to test

A Las Vegas man's apparent creation and lethal use of ricin put Southern Nevada's emergency responders to the test and highlighted one problem the area has in dealing with biological agents that could be used by terrorists.

A sample of what is believed to be ricin, a biotoxin, was sent to Reno on Saturday, but the Nevada State Health Division Laboratory could not process it due to, "technical difficulties," said Dr. Donald Kwalick, Clark County's chief health officer.

The sample had to be sent to the Centers for Disease Control because the laboratory in Reno had just received it's testing kit for ricin, Clark County Health District spokeswoman Jennifer Sizemore explained today.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Randall Todd said: "I don't know if it was a case where the lab wasn't familiar with the kit or protocol needed to test for ricin, but they obviously thought they could do it and then realized that some key element wasn't there."

Todd said that even if the sample had been tested in Nevada it still would have been sent on to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta for final confirmation.

Doctors with the State Public Health Lab were unavailable for comment this morning.

Las Vegas is scheduled to get its own public health laboratory this fall, Sizemore said. Clark County received federal funding for the lab, because there wasn't a similar facility within 100 miles of Las Vegas. The new lab will be housed in the health district's Shadow Lane complex just east of University Medical Center and Valley Hospital.

FBI special agent Daron Borst said he was surprised when he heard over the weekend that the sample was being sent to Reno, because he was not aware of a lab on the West Coast that could properly identify the substance.

Ricin "is something you don't come across everyday. There is a field test that can be done, but it wasn't used in this case because the substance was contained, and doing the field test would risk further exposure."

The improved communication between emergency responders developed after the terrorist attacks of 2001 was put to the test by 60-year-old Tomoo Okada's suicide, authorities said. Okada apparently manufactured a small amount of ricin and injected himself with the poison at his Spring Valley home late Friday. He died just before noon Saturday.

The apparent use of the deadly biological poison forced the Clark County's Emergency Operations Center into action and from all indications the incident was handled quickly and efficiently, Daron Borst said.

The incident triggered a full emergency response by police, health officials, the FBI and fire and paramedic teams.

"Although this was a suicide it was very similar to how a mass biological outbreak might start," Borst said. "This was the first time that we've had to deal with something like this where it wasn't a tabletop exercise.

"It went very smoothly considering we had what seemed like a cast of thousands working on it. Everyone had a role, and all our practice paid off.

Although it was not bioterrorism, about 100 federal, county and city law enforcement and health officials responded in the middle of the night.

Since Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge heightened the nation's security level in February, local emergency managers have been prepared to respond to a bioterrorism, chemical or radiological incident, County Emergency Manager Jim O'Brien said.

"It was an event, not an exercise, this time," Deputy Metro Police Chief Bill Conger, local Homeland Security chief, said.

At about 10:30 p.m. Friday, an ambulance and paramedics answered a call to go to a house near Desert Inn Road and Jones Boulevard for a possible suicide, Conger said. Two Metro Police patrolmen also responded, which is routine if a person is suspected of taking his or her life.

Okada, a native of Japan and a former slot machine maker, told paramedics on the way to Valley Hospital that he had injected himself with ricin, Conger said.

Okada "apparently used a very sophisticated way to commit suicide," Conger said.

Although ricin is not contagious, it can be dangerous.

"We really didn't know what we had at first," Conger said. "We determined very early it wasn't a terrorist attack. That is very important to this community."

When the ambulance arrived at Valley Hospital, emergency room staff members had prepared an area that could contain a toxic substance, Conger said, as it was not known whether the chemical could spread in the air or by contact.

While the man was being treated at Valley, paramedics and Metro Police officers who had responded to the call were sent to University Medical Center, where they were checked for contagious or poisonous substances, Conger said.

Both hospitals closed their emergency rooms for three hours, from roughly 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. on Saturday, while the treatment rooms were detoxified.

Hazardous materials crews combed the man's home and found a container about the size of a nail polish bottle suspected of containing ricin.

Because the man's body had to be handled with care until laboratories were able to identify the substance, an autopsy has not been scheduled, he said.

The emergency plan was put into operation in a similar incident about five years ago.

Emergency crews responded in February 1998 after two medical researchers, Larry Wayne Harris of Lancaster, Ohio, and William Job Leavitt Jr. of Overton, were arrested by FBI agents in Las Vegas for carrying what agents believed was lethal anthrax. The bacteria the men possessed turned out to be the form of anthrax used by veterinarians for vaccinating animals.

Okada, who was born in Japan on Oct. 3, 1942, was a former chemist who came to the United States about 20 years ago. From May 1984 to August 1990 Okada was licensed as president, secretary and director of Universal Distributing of Nevada, a slot machine company based in Las Vegas. Okada, the brother of UDN owner Kazuo Okada, has not been involved in the gaming business since he left the company in 1990.

Kazuo Okada is licensed as UDN's owner and is the biggest investor in Steve Wynn's casino development company, Wynn Resorts. When Kazuo Okada and his brothers Tomoo and Michiko, were licensed in 1984, UDN became the first Nevada distributor of Japanese-made slots.

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