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WMDs: the FBI’s role in preventing attacks here at home

SALT LAKE CITY — While you might think of Weapons of Mass Destruction, or WMDs, as something soldiers look for overseas, the reality is, they are used right here in the United States and even in the FBI Salt Lake City Division, which covers Utah, Idaho and Montana.

Supervisory Special Agent Brett Handy tells FBI Confidential host Becky Bruce WMDs include chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. The agents who investigate the potential use of weapons of mass destruction get additional training beyond the standard training all agents get, to make sure they can probe these cases as safely as possible.

Handy detailed a worst-case scenario out of Japan in the 1990s, when a doomsday cult attacked the subway system in Tokyo with sarin gas, a nerve agent. 13 people died, and many more were hurt. Local responders were also swamped with what Handy calls “walking worried.” Recently, Japan executed a number of cult members who were involved.

Handy was assigned to the FBI’s Las Vegas Division during a ricin scare that had ties to Utah, and says it’s a prime example of how valuable a good relationship with the local police departments can be.

“Roger Bergendorff was staying at a local Extended Stay America probably about – a little less than half a mile off of the main Las Vegas strip,” Handy remembers. “He was having some respiratory distress, so he calls 911.”

Paramedics assessed his condition and took him to the hospital, where he became unresponsive. At some point in the next few days, the hotel staff became concerned about Bergendorff’s pets, so local police entered his apartment to do a welfare check. During that check on the animals, a policeman spotted a book that raised some concerns about what type of activity might have led to Bergendorff’s illness.

“It was marked on a page for the production of ricin,” Handy says. “They got search warrants, they came back and the local hazmat team went in. They did a search. Didn’t really find anything the first time.”

A short time later, Bergendorff’s cousin and brother came to Las Vegas and accessed the apartment, noting that the police search warrant affidavit showed they were looking for ricin. The cousin, a Riverton, Utah, resident named Thomas Tholen, was able to locate what the hazmat team had not been able to find.

“That’s not a knock against the local hazmat team,” Handy explains. “When you’re all dressed out in your PPE [personal protective equipment], and you’ve got the respirator on and everything, you can barely see, you can barely hear. And so to look everywhere and to find that was difficult.”

The ricin, it turned out, was in sealed airtight containers inside a bag and stuffed under a bed.

“He finds it, he brings it out and says, ‘hey, is this what you’re looking for?'” Handy remembers.

Tholen wasn’t wearing the same protective gear as the hazmat responders, but possibly because the ricin was sealed off, he did not get sick.

Bergendorff’s illness was also unrelated to the ricin, though it did set off the chain of events that led to the discovery of the toxin.

“The Utah connection to that case was that the ricin itself had been produced in the basement of the home of a local resident that lived in Riverton,” Handy says.

That information prompted a search of the Riverton home as well as a nearby storage unit.

“We found corroborating evidence that it had, in fact, been produced in Riverton,” Handy says.

Only one person who investigated Bergendorff’s case felt sick during the investigation, though Handy says it was never conclusively determined whether that illness was from exposure to ricin. He notes that during many attacks, whether they involve ricin or some other threat, area hospitals can be swamped with what he calls “walking worried,” people who may not be sick but are understandably scared about any symptom, related or not.

That’s why they treat every case as though it could be the worst case even though most turn out to be a hoax. And it turns out you can help: the FBI partners with local business owners and employees to know what kinds of purchases should raise red flags and prompt a call to the FBI. If you see suspicious activity, please call the FBI at 855-TELL-FBI (855-835-5324).