By Katherine Ramsland
No one at the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church in New Sweden, Maine, which had a
congregation of some 60 regular worshipers, could quite believe what had happened. One
minute, the two dozen people who had gathered for coffee and doughnuts after the service on
April 27, 2003, were greeting one another as usual, and the next, over a dozen members of
the congregation had become violently ill. Samples taken from the victims were tested in the
toxicology lab of the Maine Public Safety Department.
On Monday, Walter Reid Morrill, 78, died. He'd been a longtime member of the church and
had often served as a caretaker and usher. Laboratory tests conducted on the coffee by the
Maine Bureau of Health and a private lab in Pennsylvania confirmed that the cause of the
sudden illness was arsenic.
The others who were ill were fortunate. After the September 11 terrorism incident, officials
had used federal antibioterrorism grants to stockpile arsenic antidotes in Portland, Maine, and
these supplies were rushed to New Sweden to treat parishioners who had consumed the
coffee and were in a critical condition. Everyone besides Morrill survived.
The Boston Globe, CNN, ABC News, and many other media outlets covered the case as it
was breaking. Parishioners interviewed recalled that the coffee had had a peculiar taste.
It soon became clear that someone had introduced the deadly substance into the coffee, but it
was not yet known whether this had been done by accident.
"We don't know what the motive is," said a police spokesperson. "We don't know who is
responsible for doing this."
The investigation's initial focus was on those who'd had access to the building over the
weekend. Church members insisted that their community was safe and that no one in the
membership would do such a thing. They were a close-knit community. Nevertheless,
investigators interviewed many of them, looking for disputes or disagreements. Tests on the
well water, sugar, and unbrewed coffee in the can confirmed what everyone feared: someone
had intentionally introduced a large concentration of the poison into the brewing coffee.
Someone had meant to hurt them, perhaps even kill them.
The police now had a homicide investigation on their hands. It was the 13th largest mass
arsenic poisoning in the nation's history. They began to seek fingerprints and DNA samples
Then on Friday, May 2, a substitute teacher, nurse, and member of the same church, Daniel
Bondeson, 53, died after being taken into surgery at Cary Medical Center. He'd apparently
shot himself in the chest in his home in the neighboring town of Woodland. Investigators
were not sure if the two violent incidents were linked, or if the shooting was a suicide or
accident, but they obtained a search warrant and entered Bondeson's home. That Sunday,
May 4, before the analysis of this second incident was released, Maine's governor and several
state troopers attended an after-service reception to ensure that the incident was not repeated.
Bondeson, they knew, had not attended the fatal reception, and he was certainly not at this
one. His autopsy had not yet been done, but he was the chief suspect. Police seemed sure the
coffee would now be safe. It was.
At a news conference the following day, police announced that Bondeson had left behind a
suicide note that contained "important information." While the note itself remained the
confidential property of the medical examiner's office (by Maine statute), a lawyer for the
estate, Alan F. Harding, later indicated that Bondeson had described how he merely wanted
to give the church group a "bellyache." He had not intended to kill anyone and did not even
realize it was arsenic that he had used, which indicated that the "homicide" might have been
more along the lines of an accident. At that time, 12 people were still in the hospital, three in
critical condition, four in serious condition, and five in fair condition. Three others had been
Bondeson was the son and grandson of potato farmers and a loner who served on the church's
historical committee. He operated the family farm with one of his brothers, Carl. Another
brother, Paul, said that he'd seen Daniel several days after the poisoning and just before his
suicide. While Daniel was his usual "reserved" self, Paul said, he had not acted out of
So the situation might have been left at that: a man who had planned the prank had seen it go
too far and had killed himself out of shame and remorse. But that wasn't the end of it. The
police suspected that Bondeson had an accomplice—probably at least two and possibly more,
all of whom were in the congregation. By September, they believed they knew who this
person or persons were, but had not yet filed charges. State Police Col. Michael Sperry told
the Blethen Maine Newspapers that information received from FBI profilers and out-of-state
laboratories had bolstered the investigation, but he would not say whether the case was
nearing its conclusion. They had searched a home in Amesbury, Mass., where a relative of
Bondeson had occasionally lived. The motive now appeared to have been a long-held grudge
about church policies and ideas for change.
As of November 2003, the case remained open and "very active." Police say they will solve
The First Forensic Science
For many centuries, poisoning has been a popular method of murder. One reason is that
almost any natural substance in the right dose can be poisonous, and many poisons mimic
common medical diseases, leading physicians to believe a victim died of natural causes.
Toxicology is important not just for an investigation in which foul play is suspected. It is
equally essential for determining accidental deaths and suicides—and even for substance
abuse while on the job. A toxicologist may be called on to test for anything from arsenic to
poisoned gas to GHB to prescription drugs.
"The American Chemistry Society has said there are about 21 million registered compounds,"
says Dr. Robert Middleberg of National Medical Services, the world's foremost independent
toxicological testing laboratory, which tests for more than 3,000 of those compounds. He
suspects the number of poisonings each year are underestimated.
While toxicologists need "symptoms, signs, and a good case
history" to narrow down the diverse range of possible substances
suspected in a death, sometimes it becomes a matter of
systematically eliminating them by category.
There are several common substances to look for to determine
whether a death is a suicide or an accident. When Marilyn
Monroe was found dead from an overdose of Nembutal and chloral
hydrate in 1962, a psychological analysis was done as well as a toxicological screening.
These tests suggested that she fit the profile for frequent suicidal depression, even though
they did not take into account the many recent positive events going on in her life at the time
of her death. Very controversially, accidental death was ruled out, although the drugs used
seemed obvious, since the packages were on her nightstand. While there were a number of
conspiracy theories, the physical evidence suggests accidental death was the only way to
explain the autopsy results.
A popular poison for suicide is carbon monoxide from a car engine, although drug overdoses
or mixed doses of domestic medications are also widely used. Accidental deaths can result
from overdoses of drugs such as opium, hyoscine, morphine and heroin. Examples of
poisons that have been commonly used for murder are aconitine, atropine, strychnine,
thallium, antimony, arsenic and cyanide.
The history of forensic toxicology goes back about 200 years, but before reviewing it, let's
first define what this branch of science actually is. Technically speaking, John Brenner's
Forensic Science Glossary defines toxicology as the study of poisons, but it also covers the
detection of foreign substances in the body that can have a toxic effect, such as alcohol,
industrial chemicals, poisonous gas, illegal drugs, or drug overdoses. Sometimes a
toxicological procedure involves analyzing a blood or urine sample, or a strand of hair.
Other times it requires a full autopsy in which tissue samples are removed from various
organs. A living person may be tested for a suspected substance with a basic kit, such as a
breathalyzer for detecting alcohol levels, and if that registers a positive result or if symptoms
show something different, a more sophisticated analysis may be required.
The first person to suggest a chemical method for the detection of poisons, according to
Thorvald Jurgen in The Century of the Detective, was Dr. Hermann Boerhaave. His method
was relatively unsophisticated, consisting of placing substances suspected of containing
poison on red-hot coals, then testing the subsequent odors. In the early stages of forensic
toxicology, arsenic was the most common poison of choice. It was known as the "poison of
poisons" and "inheritance powder," since many relatives used it to dispatch some aging
One such case that went to trial illustrated some odd methods for making a forensic
examination. Colin Evans described it in The Casebook of Forensic Detection, stating that it
was the first murder trial to actually feature toxicological testimony from medical experts.
The incident occurred in England in 1751 and was the result of a typical domestic situation.
Mary Blandy agreed to marry Captain William Cranstoun, a man of supposed wealth and
position, but he already had a wife in Scotland. He also did not have as much money as he
claimed. When he asked his Scottish wife to issue a statement that they were not married,
she took him to court—a scandal that thoroughly embarrassed Mary's well-to-do father. He
tried to oust the bum, but Mary was in love and began to meet with the good captain secretly.
When he fell deeper into debt, he told Mary he knew of an herbalist who might assist them in
"settling" her father's estate on them. Cranstoun put this powder in the older man's tea, but
to no real effect. So he gave Mary the powder and instructed her to keep administering it in
Arsenic has different effects in different degrees of ingestion. It is absorbed from the bowel
into the bloodstream, writes Sylvia Barrett in The Arsenic Milkshake, and then goes into the
organs. The liver, which takes up toxins, gets most of the brunt of its effect, but when
delivered in one large dose, it quickly hits the brain as well, causing damage there and in the
spinal cord. When delivered to someone in smaller doses over a period of time, the poison
affects the peripheral nerves, stripping their insulating sheaths and causing them damage.
The person will feel a prickly heat, like hot needles, and the skin may blister. They will also
suffer severe headaches, nausea, numbness, and general weakness.
Mr. Blandy grew ill with gastric distress, which sent the servant to examine his food. She
found the white powder and engaged an apothecary to examine it. He wasn't sure, but the
servant told the old man of her suspicions that Mary was using arsenic on him. Mary tried to
destroy the powder by throwing it into a fire, but the servant rescued it and kept it.
Nevertheless, Blandy allowed his daughter to continue to prepare his food. Within a short
period of time, he died.
Cranstoun fled to Europe, but Mary was caught on her way out of town and arrested.
Her trial in 1752 was brief. It's notable in the history of toxicology in that four doctors who
had observed Blandy's organs at autopsy testified about the substance that killed him. They
said the "preserved quality" of these remains were highly suggestive of arsenic poisoning.
One doctor had applied a hot iron to the powder that the servant had rescued from the flames
and analyzed it by smell — a poor test.
What probably carried the day, more than anything the doctors said, was the servant's
testimony about the food and the powder. Mary claimed it was meant to improve her father's
dour temperament, but her actual behavior when caught said otherwise.
The jury found her guilty of murdering her father and sentenced her to death. On April 6
that year, she was hanged.
Fortunately, the state of "science" regarding poisoning made some advances beyond the
rudimentary sensory "tests" the experts at this trial had performed. Yet their attempt to give
a sophisticated response had started the ball rolling toward paying serious attention to
standardized forensic detection.
First Scientific Case
One of the most important discoveries was that of the "arsenic mirror" as a method for
detecting the poison. In 1787, Johann Daniel Metzger was the initial inventor, at least for
the method of detecting arsenic in solutions if not yet in the human body. He discovered that
when arsenious oxide was heated with charcoal, it formed a black mirror-like deposit on a
cold plate held over the coals. That substance was arsenic.
In 1806, Valentine Rose took this further by showing how arsenic could be detected in
human organs. He used nitric acid, potassium carbonate, and lime, evaporating that mixture
into powder form and treating it with coals to get the mirror substance.
Around the same time, in 1813, when he was only 26, Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila,
now known as the "Father of Toxicology," published a book, a Treatise of General
Toxicology. In it, he summed up everything known about poisons at the time and offered
classifications. He had tried to demonstrate the various tests for poison detection and had
found them to be highly unreliable. Assuming that toxicology was not yet a real science but
could become one, he refined Rose's method to achieve greater testing accuracy. It was
Orfila who showed with tests on animals that after ingestion, arsenic gets distributed
throughout the body. His fame won him a prominent position at Paris University, where he
started to consult on criminal cases. He was further assisted by the work of the next
In the 1830s, James Marsh tested the coffee of a supposed victim of poisoning, but was
unable to explain to a jury how he had found the arsenic, so he decided to improve his
methods to make them more demonstrative. In a closed bottle, he would treat suspected
poisoned material with sulphuric acid and zinc. From this bottle emerged a narrow U-shaped
glass tube, with one end tapered, through which arsine gas emerged to hit zinc and escape.
The escaping gas could be ignited, and it then formed the expected black mirror substance.
His method, known as the Marsh Test, was sufficiently precise to test very small amounts of
arsenic—and to help a jury better comprehend it.
Orfila used the Marsh Test to analyze the soils of cemeteries for the presence of arsenic, so
that exhumed bodies that had absorbed it from the soil would not help to falsely convict
Jurgen writes that the case that brought the "science of poisons" into public view and
established the use of science in the courtroom was the prosecution in France in 1840 of
Marie LaFarge, 24, for the murder of her husband, Charles LaFarge. Brian Innes provides
details in Bodies of Evidence.
Marie Lafarge, notably unhappy with her arranged marriage to the owner of a rat-infested
forge, was accused of using arsenic as a murder weapon. She had bought a relatively large
amount during the months preceding the death, allegedly to exterminate the rats, and her
husband had become violently ill before he died in the manner consistent with arsenic
poisoning. Servants claimed Marie had stirred white powder into his food. A local
pharmacist tested the food and found arsenic. The circumstances were clearly against her.
However, even the prosecution experts could not determine with the Marsh Test that the
contents of Lafarge's stomach contained arsenic, so they requested that the body be exhumed
to test the organ tissues. That was done, and still the tests were negative.
Yet food from the Lafarge household did test positive for arsenic. The experts were stumped.
Enter the renowned Mathieu Orfila. He examined the materials the experts had used for
arsenic testing and then went alone to an office and re-performed the same test, proving that
it was not the method that was at fault but its practitioners. They had bungled it. Orfila was
able to detect the presence of arsenic in Lafarge's body, and to prove that it had not originated
in the soil surrounding the coffin. Based on his results, Marie was declared guilty and
sentenced to death. Her sentence was later commuted to life.
Doctors and pathologists came to be recognized as the first forensic scientists, and the first
procedures for proving poisoning in court were formalized. As yet, they could not measure
the actual amount in the body, so they had to rely on building a convincing circumstantial
case as well.
In 1851, writes Innes, Britain passed the Arsenic Act, which restricted the sale of arsenic-
laced rat poison to persons over 21 who were also known to the seller and who signed a
That did not stop people who were determined to kill.
Black Widow's Best Friend
The next issue that forensic toxicology had to face with metal-based poisons was quantifying
poisons. It was no longer sufficient for a toxicologist to say that the amount of poison found
was fatal without having numbers to back up the statement.
In a murder case in 1911, Dr. William Willcox developed the first method for quantifying
arsenic. Frederick Henry Seddon was arrested for poisoning Elizabeth Barrow to steal her
assets. Scotland Yard authorized Willcox to make some tests. He ran hundreds of weight
tests for arsenic and then used his method to figure out how much arsenic was in each of the
poisoned woman's internal organs. He calculated the amount via body weight in milligrams.
His method was eventually refined over the years to the point of being able to detect the
presence of arsenic down to the microgram (one millionth of a gram) in both the human body
and in soil.
A famous case that involved the quantization of poisons was that of Marie Besnard, known as
the "black widow of Loudun." Besnard was accused of killing 12 people with arsenic,
including her husband and her mother. The string of deaths stretched across two decades,
from 1929 until 1949. Marie benefited in some manner from each of the murders, thus
providing the prosecution with a motive. All of the bodies were exhumed and high levels of
arsenic were found in each one. However, aside from the poison, the prosecution had only
circumstantial evidence against Besnard.
When the case went to trial the defense attacked the lab technique of the toxicologist, Dr.
Georges Beroud, as careless. This caused sufficient doubt that a second toxicological
investigation was requested from a group of four toxicologists. While this second
investigation was being performed, the defense learned about a new theory: through
anaerobic bacteria arsenic could enter the hair of a corpse from the ground. This meant that
the prosecution's experts would now have to prove that the arsenic in the bodies had not been
introduced after burial.
When complete, the second investigation also found significant levels of arsenic in the
corpses. However, Griffon, one of the toxicologists, had been careless in his determination
of arsenic in hair. The procedure required that the hair be subjected to radioactivity for
twenty-six and one-half hours. Griffon had only exposed it for fifteen hours, thus again
calling the results into question.
A third investigation was performed by another group of toxicologists, but when they could
not disprove the defense's new theory, Marie Besnard was acquitted on December 12, 1961.
Not everyone has had such a clever lawyer.
In Criminal Poisoning, John Harris Trestrail III provides a brief historical summary of
poisoning, starting with the Sumerians around 2500 B.C., who worshipped a goddess of
poisons. The Egyptians understood the uses of venom and the Hebrews had poisoned arrows
for warfare. In India, around 500 years before Christ, physicians had written directions for
the detection via personality traits of poisoners, while the physician, Nicander of Colophon,
compiled the earliest known list of poison remedies.
The idea of poison came from the Greek word, "toxicon," which referred to poison arrows,
and it is the root of "intoxicated," which to the Greeks meant being sickened by poisoned
arrows. The Greeks also developed a form of capital punishment via poison with Hemlock,
which was given to Socrates for corrupting the Athenian youth.
In the eighth century, an Arab chemist turned arsenic into an odorless, tasteless powder that
was impossible to trace in the body until centuries later, enhancing its use as an undetectable
murder weapon, especially among those standing to inherit from aging relatives.
During the Renaissance, poisoning became an art form, inspiring subtle ways to dispense
with people via such items as poison rings, swords, knives, letters, and even lipstick.
Poisoning societies developed, as did family businesses that relied on poison-for-hire as their
trade. Notorious poisoners came out of Italy and France at this time.
While poison is the weapon of choice for women, and throughout history more women than
men have been mass or serial poisoners, a sampling of prominent serial killers via poison
contains representatives from both genders.
Locusta, in Ancient Rome, was Nero's personal poisoner and the first documented serial
killer. She helped Nero to murder his brother with cyanide, and she also murdered
several of his wives.
The Council of Ten in Venice in 1419 poisoned people for a fee, using a mercury-based
compound and various forms of arsenic. In Venice and Rome, there were even schools
for people to learn how to do this.
In the 17th century, Italy's Madam Toffana was apparently successful in her poisonings
around 600 times, either directly by her or indirectly by those to whom she sold her
arsenic concoction. She was allegedly involved with poisoning two popes.
In England, Mary Ann Cotton killed her mother, all of her children, several
stepchildren, an acquaintance, and four husbands with arsenic. They all
died of "gastric fever," a diagnosis common in the 19th century.
Belle Sorrenson Gunness killed her first husband and two of her children to
collect insurance money for purchasing a pig farm in Indiana. Belle soon put "lonely hearts"
ads in the paper and those men who answered disappeared. When a fire leveled the place in
1908, investigators turned up one corpse after another that had been interred in the farm's
foundation or buried in the yard. All of the victims had been poisoned. A handyman
estimated the total of her murders at 49.
The "giggling grandma," Nannie Doss, dispatched four husbands during the
1940s and 50s, but she claimed that she'd done it for love, not money. She
wanted the perfect mate and the men she had married had failed to measure
up. It was easy enough to slip each of them rat poison and move on to the
next prospect—but also collect the insurance money. She also poisoned her
mother, two sisters, two children, a grandson and a nephew, because she
Doctor Thomas Neill Cream dispensed strychnine to at least four prostitutes, telling
them that it was medication for their complexions. They experienced agonizing
symptoms before they died. He was nicknamed the "Lambeth Poisoner," and he
tripped himself up by offering information to police for money. He was hanged in
1892, the same year that Lizzie Borden was denied prussic acid on the day before her
father and stepmother were murdered with multiple blows from an ax.
John Otto Hoch roamed around the U.S., and is thought to have murdered 12 of his
24 wives by poisoning. His preferred substance was arsenic. He even carried a dose
for himself inside a fountain pen, to use if he got caught or felt suicidal. Illinois
saved him the effort by executing him.
The "Toxicomaniac," Graham Frederick Young was an Englishman who loved
poisons and poisoners. From the age of 11, he was obsessed with chemistry and the
use of substances to gain power over others. He killed his stepmother with antimony
when he was 14, which no one realized until he admitted it years later, and his
obsession was such that he was finally sent to an asylum for nine years. He came out
"cured" and found employment in a job that used thallium, with which he then
experimented on people. When two died, he bragged so much about what he knew of
their conditions that he was arrested and convicted of their murders, as well as several
attempted murders. It was clear from a list he had made that he had targeted many
more for his deadly experiments.
Donald Harvey worked in the health care system from 1983-1987 as a nurse's
aide. During that time, he engaged in a cold-blooded killing streak that involved
smothering, metal-based poisons, and tranquilizer drugs. He pleaded guilty to 37
murders and was referred to as the "Angel of Death."
Many of these people were caught and confronted with their crimes, but some
murderers-by-poison escaped, thanks to the long period of time between
administration and detection.
A Very Cold Case
In 1871, Charles Francis Hall led an expedition in search of the North Pole, supported with a
sizable grant from the U.S. Congress. Hall was experienced in arctic conditions, but not
with a haughty crew member, physician and chief scientist Dr. Emil Bessels. They set
anchor for the winter about 500 miles from their goal in a harbor at Greenland. Bessels and
another officer insisted that they go south for safety. Hall stood firm on his plans.
On October 24, after drinking coffee, Hall became ill. Bessels gave him medications, but he
only grew worse. He believed he was being poisoned, but before anyone could do anything
for him, he died on November 8. The crew buried him in Greenland. Later after an inquiry,
it was determined that Captain Hall had died from natural causes.
The case seemed to be closed, but people remained curious. It was nearly a century before
another scientist decided to find out if Hall might actually have been poisoned. Over time,
scientists had learned that human hair roots absorb arsenic like blotting paper and each dose
leaves a permanent and measurable record in every growing strand. If someone dies from
arsenic poisoning, there should be a high concentration close to the roots. Fingernails will
also provide a record via growth patterns.
Professor Chauncey C. Loomis of Dartmouth College and pathologist Dr. Franklin Paddock
formed a team and went to Greenland to exhume Hall's remains. They performed an autopsy
right there on the ground, because the coffin was frozen into the earth and the body with it.
But it was remarkably well-preserved. Hall's body fat had been converted into adipocere, a
substance like soap that had a preservative effect on the internal organs. That was good news
for the scientists.
They removed various samples from strategic places, including hair samples and fingernails.
They also took samples from the soil surrounding the coffin. They subjected all of this to a
modern technique called neutron activation analysis.
Using neutron activation analysis, a specimen is placed in a nuclear reactor and irradiated
with a stream of neutrons. It then becomes destabilized in terms of the ratio of protons to
neutrons in the sample's atoms and becomes radioactive, emitting gamma rays of a
characteristic radiation level. The rays are then measured in a spectrometer, and the
treatment allows the scientist to measure even the sample's smallest constituent particles and
identify the separate elements. If a person ingested arsenic, the procedure separates it into its
component parts and makes it possible to measure how much was ingested over the course of
just a few days.
To the scientists' disappointment, the Greenland soil samples contained a high percentage of
arsenic. Yet they could still learn things from the body that could indicate murder.
In Hall's fingernail, they found evidence that he had received a large amount of arsenic
during the last two weeks before his death. Since the nail had shown differential growth, its
condition stood against the idea that arsenic had leached through the coffin into the body.
The hair samples displayed the same thing. Had the arsenic come from the soil, the
distribution would have been more uniform. Given Hall's reported symptoms, his suspicions,
and the results of the analysis with modern forensic technology, those involved in the
investigation agreed that the chances were good that Hall had been murdered.
Yet even with the likelihood of murder, there was no telling who the murderer was. Several
people had been at odds with Hall. Despite the obvious suspect, there was no evidence tying
Bessels to the crime.
In a similar case, what seemed obvious from the body samples became less certain with new
Conspiracy and Napoleon
As forensic science acquired increasingly more sophisticated means for analysis, revisiting
history to see if anything more could be learned from seemingly unsolved cases became
irresistible. As long as hair, bone or tissue remained, it was possible to make a more
definitive report than had been done using the primitive means of the past.
A case in point was Napoleon, the French Emperor who died in May 1821. A man who had
made his mark across Europe as a military genius and whose life and death are still the
subject of fascination, he was exiled to the island of St. Helena to live out his days as a
captive of England. Some say he died there of stomach cancer or a liver disorder. Others
insist there was a conspiracy to bring about his end with the gradual introduction of poison.
Some even believe that he did not die, but had an impersonator die in his place.
Napoleon, says Robert H. Goldsmith, was 47 and in good health when he arrived for his
second term of exile after the 1815 defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, but he deteriorated fairly
quickly. Since he'd escaped from his first exile residence on Elba and had roused an
enthusiastic following for three months in an effort to reclaim his throne, people had reason
to fear that he might do so again. But his health soured as his legs swelled up, he suffered
numerous aches and pains, and experienced headaches, diarrhea, and sleep disorders. It went
on like this for about six years, with jaundice setting in, and during the weeks prior to his
death he experienced episodes of severe vomiting. He hinted that he was being poisoned, a
claim not so far-fetched in light of the fact that one of his companions and two of his servants
In 1840, Napoleon's grave on the island was opened, and his body was quite well-preserved.
He was moved from there to his current entombment in Paris.
During the early 1960s, a team made up of a dentist, an amateur toxicologist and a Napoloana
collector who had read the memoir of an eyewitness (Napoleon's valet) reviewed Napoleon's
symptoms and noticed that they were consistent with those of gradual arsenic poisoning. So
was the preserved condition of his unembalmed body after nineteen years in the grave. The
team obtained samples of his hair, which were reputed to have been removed on the day after
Applying neutron activation analysis, they found what they believed was a higher than
normal level of arsenic in the hair sample, as well as evidence of gradual introduction of the
arsenic over time. That seemed to close the case: Napoleon had been murdered.
Yet 20 years later, a hair sample taken from a staff officer present on the island with
Napoleon and subjected to different technology, found normal arsenic levels but elevated
levels of antinomy. Mercury and antinomy had been found to complicate an analysis for
Others jumped in with explanations about how arsenic could have been present in Napoleon
without necessarily being administered by a secretive murderer. Arsenic was commonly
used in wallpaper, says one. Also, many medications at the time contained arsenic. Medical
examiner Cyril Wecht points out that samples of Napoleon's hair taken at different times
during his life, not just on the island, had shown elevated arsenic readings, and that a 2002
article indicates that arsenic was commonly used in hair products at the time.
Yet there are problems with these counter-arguments, and the case of Napoleon has not yet
been definitively resolved. Perhaps some technology yet in the future will do the trick.
Besides arsenic, other poisons have been used in murders, and a recent case showed how
essential the time line developed from the hair growth can be. The circumstances don't
always yield the whole story.
Robert Curley, 32, began to grow ill in August 1991, entering the hospital in Wilkes-Barre,
Pennsylvania, for what would become a series of stays before he finally died in September.
His doctors went through several diagnoses for his puzzling symptoms, which included
burning skin, numbness, weakness, repeated vomiting and rapid hair loss. Just before he
died, he became more agitated and aggressive, so he was transferred to a hospital that could
perform tests for heavy metal exposure. Sure enough, he had elevated levels of thallium in
First discovered and named in England in 1861, this carcinogenic substance had been applied
in limited doses for ringworm, sexually transmitted diseases and gout. It was also used in rat
poison but was eventually banned in 1984.
A search of his worksite at Wilkes University turned up five bottles of thallium salts in a
stockroom for the chemistry lab, but none of his co-workers had experienced any symptoms
from inadvertent thallium exposure. The levels measured in Curley at autopsy were so high
it was determined that he'd been deliberately poisoned, and his death was ruled a homicide
via severe hypoxic encephalopathy, secondary to thallium poisoning. In other words, as
Cyril Wecht describes it in Mortal Evidence, his brain had swelled so much it had pushed
down into the spinal cord.
Investigators searched the Curley home, where Joann, his wife of 13 months, lived with her
daughter from a previous marriage. They found several thermoses that tested positive for
thallium, which Mrs. Curley said her husband used to take iced tea to work. In addition, tests
done on Joann and her daughter showed elevated levels of thallium, but not in such toxic
With no leads on suspects, however, the case went cold. Curley's widow, Joann, sued the
university for wrongful death. She had recently collected over one million dollars from a car
accident involving her first husband, and she had gained $297,000 in life insurance from
Robert's demise. She looked suspicious to the police, but they had no way to prove that she
had killed her husband.
Authorities approached Dr. Frederic Rieders of National Medical Services, a private
toxicology lab in Willow Grove with extensive testing abilities, to do a more thorough
analysis of the tissues. Rieders requested more samples, so Joann agreed to have her husband
exhumed. Hair shafts were removed from various parts of Curley's body, along with toenails,
fingernails, and skin samples.
Dr. Reiders conducted a segmental analysis on the hair shafts to devise a timeline of thallium
exposure and ingestion. The hair strands from Curley's head were sufficiently long to plot
approximately 329 days of his life prior to his death. Thallium levels were recorded in the
hair shafts at different times using atomic absorption spectrophotometry. That means Rieders
used a chemical to break down each segment of hair into individual atoms and then excited
them to the point where they absorbed energy. Every substance has an individual,
measurable absorption rate, and through this method, the quantity of the substance can be
The results were surprising. While investigators had figured August 1991 as the initial
exposure period, concentrations of thallium were measured over the course of nine months,
with spikes and drops that suggested a systematic ingestion long before Curley had begun his
job at the university. Clearly, that was not where he had first received his exposure to
thallium. There was also a massive spike just a few days before his death that suggested
intentional poisoning. Hair from other parts of his body, as well as readings from his toe-
and fingernails, supported this data.
This timeline was compared to events in Curley's life, which indicated that when he was
away from home or in the hospital, his thallium levels dropped—except for the few days
prior to his death. At that time, his family had brought in some food and his wife was alone
The pressure was now on Joann Curley, and in 1997 in a plea deal she confessed to having
murdered her husband with rat poison in order to enrich herself on his life insurance
payment. In the deal, she received a sentence of 10-20 years in prison.
While metal-based poisons received the most attention during the early years of forensic
toxicology, once they became detectable, they tended to lose their appeal as a means for
murder. The plant-based toxins drew the attention of killers
The Next Step
Another major step in the history of forensic toxicology was the development of methods
during the 19th century for detecting the presence of vegetable alkaloids, such as caffeine,
quinine, morphine, strychnine, atropine, and opium. Plant alkaloids leave no demonstrable
traces in the human body, thus requiring relatively complicated methods of extraction before
an analysis can be performed. These poisons affect the central nervous system. Even Orfila
had no success and he thought that the isolation of alkaloids from human tissues might be
His student, Jean Servois Stas, had a different idea. In a murder trial in 1850, the male
victim showed clear chemical burns in his mouth, tongue, and throat. Stas searched for three
months for the agent, and eventually managed to isolate nicotine from the body tissues.
Using ether as a solvent, which he then evaporated to isolate the drug, he found the potent
drug. It was, in fact, the murder weapon. The man's killer had extracted it from tobacco and
force-fed it to the victim. With Stas's testimony, the killer was convicted.
Stas thus became the first person to develop a method to extract the material containing the
plant alkaloids from the organic material of the human body, and for many years thereafter,
with some modifications, it was used as the standard. Other toxicologists then developed
qualitative tests with the Stas procedure to determine the presence of various alkaloids in the
A case in which this method played a significant role was the murder of the young French
widow, Madame de Pauw. Her alleged murderer was a homeopathic doctor, Couty de la
Pommerais, who was her lover. Pommerais was in financial trouble at the time, and de Pauw
had a large life insurance policy of which Pommerais was the beneficiary. One day, de Pauw
mysteriously fell ill and died within hours. An anonymous note alerted the police to foul
The forensic pathologist, Professor Ambroise Tardieu, suspected from the victim's odd
symptoms—especially her racing heart--that Pommerais had used the paralyzing drug,
digitalin. To demonstrate the presence of digitalin in Madame de Pauw's body, Tardieu
injected several frogs with the extract he had obtained using the Stas method, as well as with
a standard solution of digitalin. The reactions from those frogs injected with the standard and
those injected with the extract were exactly the same. This evidence held up in court and on
June 9, 1864, Pommerais was convicted of murder and executed.
Yet there was also a problem with these tests: false reactions. At times, an alkaloid might
develop in the body after death that mimicked the reactions of the qualitative color tests for
the vegetable alkaloids. These substances are known as "cadaveric alkaloids." In order for
the toxicologists to be certain that they were identifying a poison correctly, they needed a
method that was specific only to that vegetable alkaloid, or they had to run a number of tests
and obtain positive reactions to all of them. This discovery of cadaveric alkaloids created a
need for new tests to be developed.
An important case that involved cadaveric alkaloids was that of the murder of Annie
Sutherland. Sutherland owned a saloon which her alleged murderer Buchanan frequented.
Eventually Buchanan and Sutherland married; however, Buchanan was having financial
troubles at the time. When Sutherland mysteriously died, he was heir to all of her assets, and
therefore had a motive to kill her. Toxicologists determined that Sutherland died of
morphine poisoning, although she did not display the determining characteristic of narrowed
pupils. It was discovered that Buchanan had put drops of atropine in her eyes to dilate them
and foil the doctors. The toxicological evidence seemed overwhelming, but on the stand,
Professor Victor Vaughn proved the existence of a cadaveric alkaloid that mimicked
morphine in all of the known morphine qualitative tests. This cast a shadow of doubt on all
of the toxicological evidence. In the end, based on his own self-incriminating testimony,
Buchanan was convicted in 1895, but the jury did not take the toxicological evidence into
This forensic fiasco inspired toxicologists to look for new methods of demonstrating the
presence of alkaloids in the body—so a setback became a means for improvement. Dr.
William Henry Willcox was the first to propagate the idea of using the melting point and
crystallization patterns of the alkaloid as an identifier. However, even this method had its
problems, as some alkaloids proved to have similar melting points. Thus, melting point and
crystallization then could only be used in combination with other qualitative tests. More and
better tests were developed, and by 1955, there were 30 tests for morphine alone.
Another problem for the toxicologist in the second quarter of the 20th century were synthetic
alkaloids, developed with the growth of pharmaceutical chemistry, which required entirely
new methods of separation from the body extract and a different means of identification.
One of the responses to this problem came from A.S. Curry. He proposed the use of column,
or paper, chromatography as a means of separation based on molecular size or polarity. It
makes colorless alkaloids visible and easily separated onto filter paper.
This was a good thing, because with industrialization, poisons of all types were becoming
available to millions in the form of cleansers, medicines, and pesticides, and their many
variations were multiplying.
Modern Detection Methods
For both alcohol and drugs, the most state-of-the-art analysis will involve spectrometry and
often some form of chromatography.
"There are two ways to describe it," says Dr. Robert Middleberg, the Laboratory Director at
National Medical Services. "Either chromatography is an analytical technique that has a
mass spectrometer as a detector, or mass spectrometry is an analytical technique that uses
chromatography and other methods to get the samples into it."
For example, toxicologists dissolve tissues for analysis in an acidic or alkaline solution and
then use high-pressure liquid chromatography or gas chromatography (which replaced paper
chromatography) with the mass spectrometer. Thin layer chromatography is also used,
where the sample is placed in a vertical gel film and then subjected to a liquid solvent that
breaks it into its constituent parts. Direct tests on substances could now be used rather than
having to go through the tedious process of extraction.
The real workhorse of a crime lab is the gas chromatograph with mass spectrometry
(GC/MS). Most things encountered at a crime scene are complex mixtures and with this
method can be separated into their purest components.
A small amount of the suspect substance or unknown material is dissolved in a solvent and
then injected by needle into a hollow tube. A flow of inert gas (helium or nitrogen) propels
the heated mixture through the coiled glass tube, where a highly sensitive, computerized
detector identifies the separate elements at the other end. Since each element moves at its
own speed, as it crosses the "finish" line, it can be identified. The amount of pure substance
in the mixture is measured as well, producing a chart that offers a composite profile (via
travel time measured in minutes). Comparison---or control---substances are also put through
the GC. This helps to identify suspicious substances, such as an accelerant on a piece of
charred wood when compared against wood without accelerant. GC can be used to identify
many things, from poisons to drugs to explosives. It's also used for blood alcohol
Linked with the mass spectrometer, the GC separates the sample into its component parts and
the MS bombards the sample with electrons produced by a heated cathode, breaking it into
electrically charged fragments. These fragments pass through the spectrometer, accelerated
by an electric field. A magnetic field deflects them onto a circular path, the radius of which
varies according to the mass of the fragment. As the magnetic field is increased, a detector
linked to a computer records the energy spectrums. The position of each fragment on the
spectrum measures its mass, and its intensity indicates its proportion in the sample. This
comes through as a printed readout.
In other words, no matter how the samples are divided according to molecular weight, the
spectrometer can identify the smallest traces of individual chemicals.
These days, there are three basic situations, says Marina Stajic in More Chemistry and Crime,
that require toxicological analysis.
The cause of death is known but drug findings are needed to clarify the circumstances
When drugs are the direct cause of death
When negative results permit the pathologist to rule out drugs or poison and
concentrate on disease
Middleberg adds "the unexplained death of someone with no obvious trauma and no medical
history or trouble."
While all of this multimillion dollar equipment is used every day, he notes, toxicologists still
use tests that seem archaic by today's standards. "When we want to confirm carbon
monoxide poisoning, for example," he says, "we use a little white disk that we put chemicals
in, mix, and come back later to look for a color change. It's easy and it works."
In some cases, time is of the essence. In others, it becomes a question of justice. Let's look
at some of the drugs that killers have chosen for their nefarious purposes.
In February 1983, a grand jury was convened to look into 47 suspicious
deaths of children at Bexar County Medical Center Hospital that had occurred
over a period of four years---the time when Genene Jones had been a nurse
there. A second grand jury organized hearings on the dead children from a
clinic where she also had worked. The body of Chelsea McClellan was exhumed and her
tissues tested; her death appeared to have been caused by an injection of the muscle relaxant,
succinlycholine. Jones was questioned by both grand juries and was named by Chelsea's
parents in a wrongful death suit. One grand jury indicted Jones on two counts of murder, and
several charges of injury to six other children. Associates testified that Jones would spend
long hours on the children's ward and always wanted to hold them after they had died. She
also liked to take them to the morgue. It became clear to everyone that children were dying
in this unit from problems that shouldn't have been fatal. The need for resuscitation suddenly
seemed constant---but only when Jones was around. In a statistical report presented at the
second trial, an investigator stated that children were 25% more likely to have a cardiac arrest
when Jones was in charge, and 10% more likely to die. On February 15, Jones was convicted
of murder. Later that year, she was found guilty of injuring another child by injection.
Jane Toppan seemed to be a sensitive, intelligent woman who was indispensable to well-to-
do families in Boston, Massachusetts during the 1890s. Harold Schechter in The Poisonous
Life of a Female Serial Killer describes how she ingratiated herself as an "angel of mercy,"
got hired as a private nurse, and went to work on her own secret passion—watching people
die from poison. Far from using this murder weapon as a means to get ahead—the common
assumption about female poisoners—she appeared to derive an erotic thrill from her work.
Caught in 1901 after four members of the Alden Davis family had died in quick succession,
Toppan was exposed as a killer. An autopsy indicated lethal doses of morphine and atropine
in one of the victims. Investigators looked into her past, discovering a history of mental
instability in Toppan's family and a long list of past patients who had died. She admitted to
her attorney that she had killed 31 people, though people who repeat the 1938 New York
Times report of her dark legacy have quoted a victim count up to 100.
As reported in The Reader's Digest and Scientific Sleuthing Review, Kristen
Rossum was married but unhappy. Although her husband of a year and a half,
Gregory de Villers, 26, had rescued her from a downward spiral of drug addiction
and had married her, she soon found a new love. Her boss at the San Diego
County Medical Examiner's Office, toxicologist Michael Robertson, 31, indulged
in a love affair with Kristen and showed her more romance than did her husband.
She wanted to escape, and she had the means to do so right there in the lab where
she and her lover worked. Using a lethal dose of fentanyl, a powerful pain killer that had not
been properly inventoried, she managed to poison her husband and then stage his death as a
suicide. She even added rose petals around his body as a special touch, in tribute to a scene
in American Beauty, her favorite movie. However, suspicions were sufficiently aroused to
prevent the body from being cremated, and the rose and the lethal drugs were traced back to
Rossum, so as her lover headed back to Australia, she was arrested, tried, and convicted of
To be able to prosecute Cathy Smith for contributing to John Belushi's death in 1982 from a
drug overdose, it was necessary to establish a fairly precise time of death. She had fled to
Canada and extraditing her for a trial meant using a number of persuasive
factors to indicate that she had to have given Belushi the fatal injection.
Belushi and Smith had been on a four-day drug binge around Los Angeles. On
the night of March 4, Belushi threw a party in his bungalow. He closed it down
at 3 a.m. because he felt cold, and Smith claims she gave him his last injection
of cocaine and heroin about half an hour later. At 6:30, he got up to take a
shower. Around 7:45, she brought him some water as he lay in bed. She
claimed that when she left at 10:15, he was alive. At 12:30, his exercise
instructor came in to discover him dead. Emergency services arrived at 12:35.
Cause of death was difficult to determine, but establishing time of death meant
factoring in the drug use, which can throw off the typical patterns. And there were other
complicating variables. Belushi was heavy, which can slow body temperature cooling.
Cocaine also raises the body temperature, so it could have started out higher than normal.
Nevertheless, that still placed death at 10:30 or an hour thereafter. That meant that a drug
injection would have to have been given around 8:30—at which time Smith was still with
Belushi. She was convicted of involuntary manslaughter
Former FBI profiler, John Douglas, was involved in a 1982 case that got
national attention and spawned a few copy cats. He describes the case in
Mind Hunter. In the Chicago area, people suddenly began to die in a
mysterious manner. There were seven victims in all, and one of them had
lingered in agony for two days before finally succumbing.
The police eventually discovered the connection: the victims had all purchased a bottle of
Extra Strength Tylenol and had consumed capsules that had been laced with cyanide. That
meant a sudden death—especially since none of the victims knew what they had taken.
Apparently the killer had placed the substance by opening the Tylenol capsules and inserting
The Tylenol manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, immediately recalled all packages of their
product around the country, at great cost to them. The country was witnessing a form of
terrorism—someone, somewhere, could contaminate almost anything they bought and they
would innocently consume it and die. People wanted this perpetrator found.
In the FBI code language, Douglas says, the case became known as "Tymurs."
The problem that faced them, he adds, was the random nature of the product tampering. No
specific person had been targeted, or any specific store, and there appeared to be no motive.
No one was using it to blackmail a company into paying a ransom.
Douglas interpreted it as an act of anger, with no specific need to see a victim or to be present
at the murder. It was a crime involving psychological distance. "Our research had shown,"
he writes, "that subjects who kill indiscriminately without seeking publicity tend to be
motivated primarily by anger." He also believed the person would have periods of
depression and hopelessness. He was like an assassin, a white loner who hated society and
sought some expression of power.
Douglas offered a profile that indicated that this person would probably have a record of
complaints of injustices against him (he did not consider that the person might be female),
and that he'd have a psychiatric record.
He had likely experienced some stressful event around the time when the first deaths had
occurred late in September. He would also be talkative about the news to anyone who would
Douglas suggested articles that humanized the victims and he thought it might be wise to
hold graveside vigils at night for at least a week, in case the perpetrator wanted to venture
close to relive his sense of power.
Despite all efforts, the identity of the Tylenol Killer was never revealed. To this day he
remains unidentified and unapprehended. Yet as suddenly as they had begun, the cyanide
poisonings stopped (though other cases of product tampering occurred in other places).
According to Trestrail in Criminal Poisoning, this case changed forever the manner in which
over-the-counter drugs were sold in this country. Now we have tamper-proof seals and
warnings of all kinds not to take drugs in which the seals have been broken.
Some drugs are still difficult to detect, but sometimes forensic science catches up in ways a
murderer does not expect.
Dr. Bill Sybers was a Florida-based physician who doubled as the
county coroner. His wife, Kay Sybers was 52 years old and
overweight and had an unhealthy lifestyle. When she died
suddenly one morning in 1991, her lack of history of medical
concerns was cause for an automatic autopsy anywhere in Florida.
But Sybers concluded that his wife had died of a heart attack, so he
had decided against an autopsy, which he said was consistent with
her wishes. He reported that she had woken up at around 4:30 a.m.
complaining of chest pains and stabbing pains radiating down her left arm. One would think
that Sybers should have called 911 to get his wife to a hospital for treatment of a possible
heart attack. Instead he said he had tried to draw blood from her. However, he'd botched the
job and had disposed of the syringe.
A day later, Agent Scotty Anderson insisted on scheduling Kay Sybers' body for autopsy
with the medical examiner's office in nearby Pensacola, Florida. At the place on her arm
where the syringe had been inserted, examiners cut the right side away and took it for
toxicology examinations so they could analyze it for substances. They had a woman who
was in her early 50s who had died unexpectedly with an autopsy that showed no anatomic
reason for her sudden demise.
However, a reliable toxicology examination proved difficult. After deciding an autopsy was
unnecessary, Bill Sybers had released his wife's body to a funeral home where it was
embalmed, making it almost impossible to detect any hint of poison in the body's tissues.
The embalming preservative had often stymied the efforts of toxicologists.
Unsettled, Agent Sanderson worked the netherworld of office gossip. Rumor placed Bill
Sybers in an affair with a female technician at his lab. Sybers had placed hundreds of calls
over a period of a few weeks, all to this woman. The last logged in at 6:36 A.M. on the day
Kay Sybers had died.
To re-examine the case, a brainstorming session was convened in 1997 with some of the
brightest minds in forensic science. A list of the best types of poison to use to kill someone
quickly was created. These experts had some key symptoms to work with, such as elevated
levels of potassium. Kay's preserved tissue samples were sent to the lab at National Medical
Services in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Frederic Reiders reviewed the case and considered the use of potassium chloride, the
third and final drug used in executions by lethal injection. In normal human blood, iron
exists in a ratio of one to one with potassium. That ratio, Reiders believed, would remain
unaffected by the introduction of embalming fluid, which contained neither potassium nor
iron. It followed that if potassium had been administered in addition to that which was
already present, the ratio of potassium would have gone up while the iron remained the
same. He performed an analysis and in one of the specimens, the ratio was eight parts of
potassium to one part of iron in the blood. This indicated that potassium may have been
introduced into the fluid.
Investigators asked that the rest of Kay's body be exhumed. The court, however, rejected the
request, saying that Reiders' approach was as yet untested. The case threatened to go cold
Next on the list of possible poisons was succinlycholine. As a murder weapon, it was
thought to be practically perfect because it broke down quickly in the body. Forensic
toxicologist Kevin Ballard screened for the drug and he discovered succinlymoncholine, a
byproduct of succinlycholine and a footprint of the poison's presence in Kay Sybers' body.
This confirmation came just before the capital murder trial of Dr. Sybers, based thus far on
circumstantial evidence, was set to begin. Ballard went to testify. He pointed out that
according to pharmacology textbooks, succinlycholine and related drugs caused an increased
release in potassium. In fact, it was a common side effect of the drugs. The drug paralyzed
the muscles, including the diaphragm. The question became that if succinlycholine was so
unstable, then how had Ballard found it after the body was embalmed and the organ sample
sat on a shelf for eight years? Ballard's answer went back to a decision that Dr. Sybers had
made right after Kay had died--to immediately embalm her body. The embalming process
actually helped preserve succinlymoncholine and made it easier to detect.
The jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder as charged in the indictment. He
was given a sentence of 25 years, but an appeals court overturned the scientific evidence and
granted him a new trial. According to the St. Petersburg Times, the 1st District Court of
Appeal ruled that evidence from a key test indicating Sybers' wife was fatally drugged should
not have been admitted at trial because it could not be duplicated. Florida evidence rules
allow "novel scientific evidence" only when it is "sufficiently established to have gained
general acceptance" in the field.
Judge Peter D. Webster wrote in the court's opinion, "We conclude that the state has failed to
carry its burden of establishing by independent and impartial proof that the scientific
principles underlying the testing . . . are generally accepted in the relevant scientific
Throughout the history of forensic toxicology, one thing stands out. While scientists and the
police have worked together to solve difficult cases, toxicologists have faced many
challenges, and those challenges have led to improving and refining their methods. However,
courts do not always accept their newer methodologies.
In 1993, Maurice Glenn Turner, a police officer in Cobb County,
Georgia, named Julia Lynn Womack the beneficiary on his life
insurance policies and retirement account. Three months later,
they were married and she became Lynn Turner. Not six months
later, she started an affair with Randy Thompson, according to
Court TV's coverage of the case, apparently leading him to believe
that she was divorced. The encounter with this woman was to
prove unfortunate for both men.
Glenn Turner, 31, went to the emergency room on March 2, 1995, complaining of
flu-like symptoms. He was treated there and when he felt better, he went home.
The next day, he was dead. No one could understand how an apparently healthy
young man had just suddenly collapsed. The attending medical examiner, Dr.
Brian Frist, decided that he'd died from some complication related to an enlarged
heart, a natural cause, and he was buried on March 6. Lynn collected around
$153,000 in death benefits.
Within days, she leased an apartment for herself and Randy Thompson, who was a sheriff's
deputy for Forsyth County in Georgia (and later became a fireman). She also booked a
cruise. Within five months, they had purchased a home, and by the end of 1995, Thompson
had started proceedings to designate Turner as his insurance beneficiary. A year later, they
had a daughter, and in 1998, a son. Thompson doubled his insurance coverage to $200,000.
The relationship hit the rocks, especially with Turner's extravagant spending habits, so
Thompson moved out and Turner went deep into debt. Thompson continued to see her and
one evening early in 2001, after he had dinner with her, history repeated itself. Thompson,
32, reported to the emergency room complaining of a stomach-ache and constant vomiting.
He was treated and released on January 21. Lynn made him some Jell-O. By the next day,
he was dead. The cause of death was listed as an irregular heartbeat, due to clogged arteries.
Lynn received $36,000.
But to the family of Glenn Turner, something seemed wrong. Glenn's mother saw the
newspaper articles about Thompson and sent a letter to Randy's mother to discuss the
similarities between what appeared to have occurred with their respective sons. They
brought this to the attention of Dr. Mark Koponen, deputy chief medical examiner of the
Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Noticing calcium oxylate crystals in the man's kidneys
during the autopsy, Koponen, who had seen this symptom before in his practice elsewhere,
sent several blood and urine samples to the crime lab. Yet toxicologist Chris Tilson said that
the results indicated nothing amiss. But Koponen was not satisfied, so he sent samples to
National Medical Services (NMS), an independent testing lab in Pennsylvania. Their results
proved to be quite different.
Randy Thompson had high levels of a toxin, ethylene glycol, the principle component of
antifreeze, in his tissues and blood. Ingested, it produces slurred speech and a tipsy sensation
before moving into severe headaches, nausea, delusions, dizziness, and a feeling of
breathlessness. Death occurs from kidney failure or heart attack.
That substance would not naturally be found in the human body, which meant that Thompson
had been exposed to it in large doses or had ingested it. Six months after he died, his cause
of death was changed to antifreeze poisoning.
Then Dr. Frist, the medical examiner from Glenn Turner's case, ordered his remains to be
exhumed and re-examined. By the fall of 2001, nine months after Thompson had died,
Turner's cause of death was also changed to antifreeze poisoning.
According to the Court TV coverage, which aired the case on television, these deaths were
the only two in the state ever attributed to antifreeze ingestion.
On November 1, 2001, a grand jury returned an indictment against Julia Lynn Turner, a 911
dispatcher, for the murder of Glenn Turner, and in May, 2004, after a few delays, she stood
DA Patrick Head assembled a number of damaging witnesses who testified to Lynn's
aloofness to Glenn throughout their marriage, her comment that she had only wanted the
insurance money, her question to a veterinary nurse about the effects of antifreeze on cats,
and her lack of emotion after Turner died. A friend of Glenn's said that a few months before
he expired, he had said that if anything should happen to him to "look at Lynn."
Because it bore such striking similarities to the case in which Turner was charged, Superior
Court Judge James Bodiford allowed prosecutors to present facts about Thompson's death as
well, though Turner had not been charged with it. Prosecutors called this evidence a
"criminal signature" that linked the two incidents.
Lynn Turner's defense attorney, Victor Reynolds, insisted that the deaths were not similar
and that no evidence linked Turner with the death of her husband. The entire case was
circumstantial. Reynolds indicated in media interviews that allowing evidence about
Thompson's death offered a way to appeal, maintaining that a jury that heard nothing about
Thompson's death would likely have a different reaction to the Turner case.
Yet the state of Georgia does allow such evidence to be admitted.
The key testimony for the prosecution involved forensic toxicologists and medical
examiners. Toxicologist William Dunn at NMS described the tests they had run on both
victims, and easily deflected the defense's theory that the toxin found in Turner had come
from embalming fluids. (This idea was further undermined by chemists at the companies that
had supplied embalming fluids to the funeral home that embalmed Turner in 1995 when they
said their companies did not use substances that contained ethylene glycol.)
Chris Tilson, from the Georgia crime lab, admitted that in his initial tests on the Thompson
samples he had made a mathematical miscalculation, which had led him to say that the levels
of ethylene glycol found in Thompson's blood were not significant. Yet even as NMS was
testing the samples sent to them, he had run a test on the urine samples and got significant
results. So he had retested the blood and realized his error.
The chief medical examiner at the GBI, Dr. Kris Sperry, told jurors that it seemed likely that
Thompson had ingested antifreeze twice, and it was the second dose that ultimately killed
Cobb County medical examiner Brian Frist, who had ordered Turner to be exhumed,
described the experiments he performed in which he put antifreeze into various food
substances such as Jell-O and Gatorade. In his opinion, the antifreeze could have been
introduced without changing the texture, behavior, or color of the food, so Thompson could
have consumed it without suspicion.
In closing arguments, the prosecutor pointed out the there was one clearly common element
in both unnatural deaths: Lynn Turner. "The simplest solution," he said, "is correct."
Each of the arguments the defense submitted had fallen short, as had several witnesses to
Lynn Turner's good character.
On the evening of May 14, 2004, after five hours of deliberation, the jury found Turner, 35,
guilty of "malice murder" in the death of her husband, Glenn Turner. She displayed no
emotion as she received a sentence of life imprisonment.
A grand jury will meet later in the year to consider the Thompson case.