Las Vegas Sun

December 10, 2023

Meet the mysterious Roger Von Bergendorff

He filed for bankruptcy, had a history of health problems and kept a vial of ricin


Roger Von Bergendorff’s signature on his bankruptcy filing documents is as enigmatic as his life story — and the reasons for his possessing a lethal poison.

He had some clothes, some cash and some vintage graphic art — and some $190,000 in debts.

Roger Von Bergendorff’s 2000 bankruptcy filing speaks of the man who lies silent in his hospital suite, comatose and in critical condition days after ricin was discovered in his Las Vegas motel room.

It lends credence, for example, to the otherwise counterintuitive statements Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie made Monday: Exposure to the deadly toxin might not be the reason Von Bergendorff is in the hospital.

It turns out Von Bergendorff has a history of medical problems, recounted in dollars and doctors’ visits detailed in the bankruptcy filing. He racked up debts for medical services he couldn’t afford: $1,730 at a Southern California cardiologist’s office; $3,800 at the Alvarado Community Hospital in Orange, Calif.; $375 worth of various work and X-ray services; and $62,890 owed to Sharp Health Care of San Diego, a group of hospitals and medical groups, for services unknown. Hospitals won’t reveal specifics about treatment.

The court documents don’t either, but they do reveal other aspects of his life.

When Von Bergendorff declared bankruptcy he had $15 in his wallet and $35 in the bank.

His rent for his home in La Mesa, Calif., was $6,000 past due. He might have been stuck watching network TV, since his cable bill was behind by almost $100. He perhaps wasn’t spending much time on the Internet by then either because he owed America Online $43 for subscription services. And his car must have been giving him heartburn because he was sued in civil court for a $13,000 unpaid auto loan.

Oh yes, he also owed the IRS about $54,500 for years of unpaid income taxes.

Von Bergendorff filed under Chapter 7, which requires the debtor to list and then liquidate his assets — sell his stuff, in other words — and give the proceeds to his creditors. Only Von Bergendorff, like many people who claim bankruptcy, didn’t have enough stuff for a half-decent garage sale.

He estimated his entire wardrobe was worth $300, and his household goods, including electronic equipment, were worth $1,900. He had $1,200 worth of “sporting goods/firearms,” and office furniture and supplies that he valued at $2,000.

The only other asset Von Bergendorff claimed was “vintage graphic arts,” which could be anything from books to posters, worth $2,500.

The attorney Von Bergendorff paid $750 to handle his bankruptcy could not be reached for comment. It’s unclear whether anyone bought the vintage graphic art.

In Vegas, Von Bergendorff’s luck apparently hadn’t changed.

Von Bergendorff got behind on his room payments at Extended Stay America, a bare-bones motel on Valley View Boulevard that squats in the shadow of the Palms. He called 911 on Feb. 14 with respiratory problems, ended up in the hospital and never checked out. By Feb. 26, motel management had started the eviction process. Motel employees called police when they found guns in Von Bergendorff’s room. The officers who responded also found an “anarchist-type textbook” in the room, with a section on ricin highlighted, Metro Homeland Security Capt. Joe Lombardo said.

About 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 28, Thomas Tholen, Von Bergendorff’s cousin, was cleaning out the room when he found a vial of what was later determined to be ricin. He brought the poison down to the motel’s front desk, and set in motion a massive law enforcement response. By 8 p.m., men in hazmat suits were wandering around the barricaded motel and seven people were in the hospital: three cops, three motel employees and Tholen.

All were released after showing no signs of ricin poisoning — and now only Von Bergendorff remains at Spring Valley Hospital, unable to speak to the cadre of investigators who would love to grill him. Ricin is deadly in minuscule amounts and has long been considered a potential weapon for terrorism, so the discovery of the stuff in Las Vegas forced Metro to spin into investigation overdrive while the world watches and waits for answers.

Federal authorities searched Tholen’s house in Utah, where Von Bergendorff was known to have lived before moving to Vegas about a year ago, and reportedly found no trace of the toxin.

Metro Police can’t say whether Von Bergendorff even made the ricin — just that he had it in his room, along with some castor beans, from which the poison is derived.

A handful of former neighbors ferreted out by the media have largely described Von Bergendorff as a struggling and strange loner.

But he has had friends, it seems, and aspirations.

Two San Diego women each lent Von Bergendorff $15,000 in 1998, which he hadn’t paid back by the time he filed for bankruptcy. He also took out a $30 ad in The San Diego Union-Tribune, though it’s not clear for what, or whether he ever paid for it.

Shortly after he adorned the bankruptcy documents with his signature, a loopy set of twin squiggles that in no way read Roger Von Bergendorff, he was apparently hired as an advertising illustrator at a company called Saffire in St. George, Utah. The Sun’s attempts to locate Saffire were unsuccessful, but according to the court documents the company cut a $2,000 check to Von Bergendorff every month.

By the time he washed up in Vegas, he was a man living with two cats and a dog in a weekly motel, and, according to the sheriff, “a relatively unknown individual.”

That unknown individual is quietly racking up massive hospital bills that he probably won’t ever be able to pay, even if he wakes up.

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