Friday, August 24, 2012
Ever since I wrote my story of early 20th century toxicologists learning to catch killers, The Poisoner’s Handbook, many people have asked me what has changed since then. The short answer is: not much as we might hope.
Contrary to what many people think, except in political killings, poisoners don’t make much use of exotic new compounds. They use – as they always have – what’s at hand. They kill for the same old reasons - for anger, jealousy possessiveness, greed. They are rare, as this analysis shows, farmore rare than other forms of killing. And that’s probably the most important change. Poison homicides don’t occur as often as they did a hundred years ago, mostly because scientists are better at solving these mysteries.
But if you’re the kind of person who likes to be prepared against all possible harm, then I’ve put together this short list of warning signs based on a scatter of recent cases. Don’t take them too seriously, as I said, this kind of thing is rare. But still, there’s a few reasonable assumptions here. For instance, you should probably pay attention if:
1. Your bowl of Rice Krispies tastes like solvent.
In January, a southern California man poured the paint remover Goof Off into his wife’s evening cereal snack. After swallowing a spoonful, she turned to her daughter saying “Something’s in it. Something’s in it.” Her daughter called 911. When police came to the hospital, the husband fled the building (he was arrested later at a nearby convenience store). He pleaded guilty in March and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
2. The coffee in your morning cup turns green.
In March a Kentucky man was charged with poisoning his estranged wife’s coffee. She called the police after she noticed the dark liquid in her cup had an oily greenish tint. A lab analysis found a sludge of rat poison in the bottom of the pot. He told the police that he was merely trying to make her a little sick. But she said friends had warned her that he planned to kill her after she started divorce proceedings.
3. Your coffee is, maybe, a little too bitter.
In 2010, a Long Island man pleaded guilty to killing his wife by putting cyanide in her coffee. The couple, who had two sons, had separated after he told her that he’d realized that he was gay. But he later told police he’d also realized that he didn’t want her to be with anyone else.
4. Your iced tea is, maybe, a little too sweet.
In July, police brought murder charges against a Cleveland, Ohio woman, accusing her of poisoning her fiance with antifreeze in 2006. Although evidence of ethylene glycol – the key ingredient in antifreeze – was found early in the investigation, it took police years longer to build a conclusive case for the poisoning itself. Detectives said ethylene glycol, which is known both for its strong, sweet taste and ability to destroy the kidneys, was mixed into the victim’s iced tea. She was ready, they said, for the relationship to be over.
5. Your mother mixes you up a cocktail when she has never done so before.
One of the more notorious recent poison killers, Stacy Castor of Clay, New York, was convicted of murder in 2007 for killing her husband with antifreeze. She then tried to frame her daughter for the crime, writing a fake suicidal confession, and serving the girlan unexpected cocktail of orange juice, soda, and crushed painkillers. The girl told police that the drink tasted “nasty” but she swallowed at her mother’s urging. Her survival led to a break in the case.
6. Your husband insists that you take those “special” calcium supplements he’s found for you.
In 2010, a Cleveland, Ohio doctor was found guilty of murdering his wife with cyanide, which he had carefully injected into her calcium supplements. His wife died in 2005 after she collapsed from the poisoning while driving and crashed her car. Before she crashed, she had told a friend that she felt increasingly ill and wondered if it was related to the mineral supplements her husband had provided.The investigation suggested that he was tired of being married.
7. Your wife works at a pharmaceutical laboratory where certain supplies have gone missing.
In March of last year, New Jersey prosecutors charged a Bristol Meyers Squibb chemist with poisoning her husband with thallium stolen from her employer. They were at the time going through a divorce. Thallium is a potent, systemic poison once widely used as a pesticide until it became considered too dangerous for general use. Today it’s mostly found in manufacturing facilities only.
8. Your wife takes a sudden interest in growing her own salad greens.
In 2008, the wife of a Missouri police officer decided she was ready to end the marriage but didn’t want to go through a divorce. Instead, she served her husband salad mixed with leaves from foxglove plants in the garden. Foxglove contains the compound digitalis which, in the right dose, can stop the heart. She’d researched the poison in the internet, police said, but she got the dose wrong anyway. Her husband survived and she pleaded guilty to assault in 2010.
9. Your jilted lover adds some secretly acquired “herbs” to food in your refrigerator.
After a London man broke off a 15-year affair and decided to get married, his ex-mistress used an old key to enter his home and add seeds from the monkshood plant (sometimes called the Devil’s Helmet) to some leftover food in his refrigerator. The plant contains an extremely powerful neurotoxin. He died and his fiancee was in a coma for two days. The killer pleaded guilty in 2010 and was sentenced to life in prison.
10. A cautionary note. If you see serious warning signs and ignore them, you may want to leave a letter.
In 2008, Wisconsin resident Mark Jensen was convicted of murdering his wife Julie by spiking her wine with antifreeze. The actual death had occurred a decade earlier and was at first thought a suicide. Jensen had been having an affair at the time and angry divorce discussions were underway. But Jensen had left a letter in case of her death, detailing her husband’s suspicious behavior. Wisconsin prosecutors were able get this “letter from the grave” admitted under a rule allowing evidence of the dead woman’s state of mind in response to the suicide claims. Jensen was convicted of murder in 2008; the conviction was upheld in 2010.
And, finally: You begin to realize that your wife just knows way too much about poison. My husband hasn’t let me pour him a cup of coffee since I wrote the book.