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Mystery surrounds ricin discovery in Las Vegas hotel

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The chemical structure of ricin

On February 14, a man staying at the Valley View Extended Stay America hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada was hospitalized after experiencing respiratory distress. The man lapsed into unconsciousness and has been at the hospital ever since.

Since the bills at the hotel were going unpaid, Extended Stay America began to evict the man from the room. Another man, described as either a friend or relative, went to the hotel on Thursday to collect the personal belongings of the hospitalized man.

According to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Deputy Chief Kathy Suey, he found several vials of a white substance. He brought them to the attention of the hotel manager, who called police.

Initial tests, which further tests confirmed on Friday, the substance was the deadly toxin ricin, an extremely dangerous biological agent. Ricin is extracted from castor beans through the waste produced in the manufacture of castor oil. It is currently being used in cancer treatment research. There has been research for its use as a chemical/biological warfare agent. An amount smaller than the point of a pin will kill a human being. It is estimated to be several thousand times more toxic than cyanide and there is no known antidote.

Police cordoned off the area around Valley View between Flamingo Road and Harmon Avenue. Three employees and the man who made the discovery were taken to the hospital as a precaution. So were three police officers. They are all reported to show no signs of poisoning.

Nevada National Guard and other emergency services responded to secure the area. Residents at the Extended Stay America were allowed back into the building late Thursday. The hotel reopened fully on Friday after the room and other areas of the hotel were decontaminated.

Castor beans

The man whose room it was "is in critical condition and he is unable to speak with us right now. We have no indication why the ricin was in that room," said Deputy Chief Suey.

"Usually, if [ricin victims] survive the first three to five days, they usually do fine," Dr. Lawrence Sands told CNN. However, survivors often have long-term organ damage.

At least three pets were found in the room. "Two of those pets are fine. One of the pets is deceased or was put down," Suey said. "The dog that was in there was without food and water for a week," she added that there was no reason to supect it was exposed to ricin. Castor beans were also found in the room.

Officials have also recovered from the room a firearm, as well as an "anarchist" text containing an article on ricin.

Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesperson Richard Kolko said the incident is being treated as a criminal matter and did not appear to be related to terrorism "based on the information gathered so far."

Captain Joe Lombardo of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said that ricin is not illegal to own unless it is intended for the poisoning of a person, adding that "We did have enough ricin to be of concern."

In 2003, a man committed suicide in Las Vegas using ricin. There have also been a few incidents where ricin powder was found in the mail. Also in 2003, the United Kingdom had the Wood Green ricin plot which in the end found no ricin.

In 1978, Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov was famously assassinated in London with ricin injected with the tip of an umbrella.


Sources

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