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California native Roger Von Bergendorff is a graphic designer and artist, an animal lover, and a man trying to get back on his feet after financial troubles.

But friends and family say the 57-year-old, now fighting for his life after possible exposure to the deadly poison ricin, wasn't the type to have a lethal poison or use it.

The mystery surrounding the recent discovery of firearms, an anarchist-type textbook, vials of ricin and castor beans found in Bergendorff's Las Vegas motel room has put a spotlight on both the Riverton neighborhood where he recently lived and his hometown of Mesa, Calif.

Dale Miller said he met Bergendorff in 1960 while living next door to his parents and watched the boy grow up into an "intelligent, very artistic" teenager who got along with his family but also "did his own thing."

Miller, 75, said he has kept in touch with Roger Bergendorff by e-mail and last communicated with his friend three weeks ago.

Bergendorff was distraught over his ill 13-year-old German shepherd, a pet he spent thousands of dollars medicating for hip problems with daily injections.

Miller said Bergendorff carried vials of medicine for his dog. "He was giving his dog shots two or three times a day. Without the shots the dog couldn't move its hindquarters," Miller said. "He spent thousands of dollars on that dog. That was his partner in life."

Bergendorff pursued a career as a graphic artist after graduating from Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif., and was working in Las Vegas designing slot machines before he was admitted to the hospital, Miller said.

Police found vials of ricin, firearms and an anarchist-type textbook tabbed to a section on ricin and castor seeds in Bergendorff's Las Vegas motel room on Feb. 22.

Those discoveries were a surprise to his great-aunt and great-uncle, Gene and Reta Peterman of San Carlos, Calif.

Gene Peterman said his wife knew Bergendorff "real well and saw him grow up." Reta Peterman, 76, is hospitalized, recovering from shoulder replacement surgery, and could not be reached for comment, but "she was floored over the thing [with Bergendorff]," Gene Peterman said.

Gene Peterman described his great-nephew as a talented artist, but also as the "black sheep" of the family - without further explanation.

By the late 1990s, Bergendorff ran into financial woes. According to court documents, Bergendorff filed for bankruptcy in 2000. He owed more than $190,000 in back taxes and for medical services, rent, unpaid private loans and other unpaid services. He lived in La Mesa, Calif., at the time.

Bergendorff lived in the Riverton home of his cousin, Tom Tholen, for nearly a year in 2005 and 2006.

Neighbors there also noticed Bergendorff's devotion to animals: he combed the neighborhood looking for his lost cat and offered a $200 reward, said John Walster, who allowed a down-on-his-luck Bergendorff to live in a trailer near his home for 2 1/2 months after Bergendorff overstayed his welcome at his cousin's home.

"He tried to capture her by putting cat traps out, but he never found her," added Tammy Ewell, another neighbor of Bergendorff's in Riverton.

Bergendorff ''even came back from Las Vegas two to three times just to search the yards and find out about the cat," Ewell said.

Walster said Bergendorff drove his Buick to Lehi for a job at Domino's Pizza. He said he also struggled with alcoholism.

The FBI and several police departments also are keeping mum about materials recovered from the Tholen's home over the weekend.

Bergendorff remained in critical condition at Spring Valley Hospital in Las Vegas on Monday, said Naomi Jones, the hospital's marketing director.


* Tribune reporter STEVE GEHRKE contributed to this report.

* Roger Von Bergendorff checked into a Las Vegas hospital on Feb. 14 complaining of respiratory problems.

* His cousin Thomas Tholen, of Riverton, came to visit and contacted management at Bergendorff's motel Feb. 22 to inform them of pets in the room.

* Police say firearms, vials of ricin and an anarchist-type textbook tabbed to a section on ricin were found in Bergendorff's motel room.