Something's Fishy

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On the morning of June 11th, 1986, Paul Webkin took two extra-strength Excedrin capsules, a few minutes later his wife, a bank manager, Sue Snow went to her kitchen and grabbed her bottle of extra-strength Excedrin, she took it to the bathroom, swallowed two pills. Six hours later was found collapsed in her home by her 15-year-old daughter. A few hours later at the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle Sue died. 


During her autopsy, a technician at the King County medical examiners office noticed something about her body. A smell. A smell of bitter almonds. Now not everyone can smell this so the fact that a technician picked up on this is honestly a little amazing. 


After the autopsy investigators searched the Snow household and found that the source of cyanide was a bottle of Excedrin. The media went wild with the case and after a second bottle of capsules was found to be tainted, the manufacturers of Excedrin decided to recall the products and came together with a group of other drug companies to offer a $300,000 reward for information.

 
With all the media and publicity about Sue’s death, a woman came forward stating that her husband had recently passed away unexpectedly and they had two bottles of Excedrin with the same lot number as that of Sue Snows. Stella said that she hadn't purchased the two bottles from the same store and neither of the stores was the same as that where Sue purchased hers.


Bruce Nickell 52 years old died June 4th - there was no proof that Bruce had actually swallowed the Excedrin but because of his untimely death and the connection of the lot numbers on the bottles, they were presumed to be related.


The second bottle was found at a  Pay ‘N Save but this was not the location of the deadly Excedrin purchased by Nickells or Snow.


On June 25, 1986, the maker of Anacin asked all the stores around the Seattle area to remove to capsules from shelves. Along with a warning urging consumers not to use Anacin or Excedrin just as a precaution as they had not found any more evidence insinuating that more bottles had been tampered with.


The FDA found cyanide in a bottle of Anacin at the Pay ‘N Save in Seattle which was the 5th tampered bottle that they had found in the two week period, which included the 2 bottles linked to the deaths. An employee from the store had notified authorities because he had noticed the normal sticker was not on the bottle.


The FDA had tested more than 150,000 drug capsules in the week after the death.

 
The county medical examiners' office announced that they would be looking at all suspicious death since January to see if they were connected to Excedrin capsules.

Along with the search for other tampered bottles, the FBI was testing Nickell and Snow bottles for fingerprints. They noticed that out of the 56 remaining capsules (out of 60) in Snow’s three contained a significant amount of cyanide and one tainted capsule was found in Bruce's bottle.


One thing I'd like to say is what the heck? Only a few years before in 1982, seven people died from the Tylonal poisoning in Chicago and Johnson and Johnson spent over $1 billion dollars to create tamper-proof packaging, why didn't other drug companies follow suit and do the same? An FDA representative said that it's really up to the consumer to “know how the product is packaged and scrutinize it when they pick it up from the store". Anyway, moving on with the story...


In August of 1986 the FBI forensic laboratories in Washington DC determined that in addition to cyanide, all 5 tampered bottles contained Algae Destroyer, a product that is sold for use in home aquariums. They had already determined that the product was not tampered with at the source since there hadn’t been any trace of cyanide found, they tried to find other explanations for the deathly substance.


Around this time, Stella Nickells and Sues husband Webking filed wrongful death lawsuits against the Bristol-Myers company. Sue lost and had not received funds from the company, not sure about Paul Webking.

 
Both Webking and Nickell were asked to take a polygraph test, Webking agreed but Nickell denied (this is the right choice!) stating that she was too shaken up to take the test - not the first time she had used this excuse.


Since they had only found 5 contaminated bottles it seemed very unlikely that Nickells would have two in her possession when they found out that Nickell had purchased the two tampered bottles at different locations.


They decided to focus their attention on Nickell and found that she had recently taken out a life insurance policy with the payout of $76,000 and an extra $100,000 if the death was accidental. 


They discovered that after Bruce’s death and before Snow's death had repeatedly disputed doctors ruling that the death was accidental. While searching through Nickells purchase records and receipts, they found something interesting. A purchase for Algae Destroyer at a local fish store.

The investigators speculated that Nickells must have used the same instrument to crush the Algae Destroyer and the cyanide without cleaning it between uses. 

Nickell finally agreed to take a lie detector test and failed… 


In January 1987 Cindy Hamilton, Bruce Nickell's stepdaughter, came forward with suspicions that her mother might be involved in the death of Bruce and Sue. She said she had waited because she was scared for her mother and wanted to protect her.

Nickell had rented a book on poisoning from the library in 1984 and never returned it and in another book on a page about cyanide poisoning, they found 84 fingerprints and 3 palm prints.


When Stella was finally brought to trial, her history came to light, and some very interesting information came out.


Stella’s daughter, Cindy Hamilton, testified that her mother had discussed copying the 1982 Tylenol poisoning. She had said it would be easy to recreate and that it would be a safe and inexpensive way to kill her husband Bruce.


Stella had said that it would be easy because people aren't looking for people putting things back on the shelf and were typically looking for people taking things
Cindy said that her mother had discussed killing her husband on at least four occasions to collect on his insurance money.


Cindy said that in 1986 Stella had discussed hiring a hitman to kill her husband but had decided that it would be too expensive. She mused about putting cocaine in his ice tea and play it off as an overdose and that Bruce (a recovering alcoholic) had switched to drugs. She decided to drop the idea because Bruce had an upcoming physical for his job and if drugs were found in his system he would have lost his job and also his state insurance policy.


Cindy said that she believed her mother was capable of doing something but she had hoped her mother would not go through with it. She said that after Stella had told her her stepfather had died, she looked at her and said “no, it wasn't what you think” assuming that Cindy suspected her of killing her stepfather. 


Stella had tried to poison her husband once before by putting black seeds in capsules and giving it to him with his morning vitamins but they didn't end up being poisonous.


Stella's fingerprints had been found on library books about poison and they had found that Bruce's signature was forged on at least one insurance policy. Cindy said her mother briefly considered divorce but said that she was not willing to lose half of what she fought so hard for. They had become very disconnected over the years. 


At the time, she was fond of getting dressed up and spending time at the bars, without her husband. She wanted freedom. 


During the trial, Stella told the story of how she had killed her husband.


On June 5th Bruce came home and kissed his wife, he then told her he had a headache and proceeded to reach for the Excedrin. At this point, Stella had already laced some of the pills so it was only a matter of time before he took one that would end his life. 


She watched her husband take four pills, watch tv for a bit and then take a short stroll on his patio. From the patio, Stella hears Bruce calling out to her, he said: “Babe, I feel like I’m going to pass out”. At that, he collapsed, unable to speak - Stella called emergency services and Bruce was brought to the hospital. Upon arrival, Stella was asked to come to Bruce's bedside and keep him company, but she declined to say that she was too upset. Within hours, Bruce was dead. 


But there was one problem, Bruce's cause of death was documented as accidental. This was no good. Stella wouldn't get the $100,000 that she had suspected. So she came up with a plan. She purchased a number of extra-strength Excedrin and Anacin-3 and filled some capsules with cyanide. She sealed the containers, re-glued the boxes, and stuck them on the shelves of three stores. 


In May of 1983, Stella Nickell was convicted of causing death by product tampering and was the first person brought to trial and convicted under federal law. She was described as an icy human being without a conscience. In June she was brought before a judge, with a huge smile on his face. The judge had no pity for her and sentenced her to 90 years in prison. 


References

  • Rosenwald, Lonnie, and Bert Caldwell. "Maker of Anacin Asked Stores to Pull Capsules." Spokane Chronicle, 25 June 1986, p. A1+.
  • "Unusual Deaths Since January Will Be Studied." The Spokesman Review, 23 June 1986, p. 1+.
  • "Excedrin Capsules Pulled Nationwide." The Spokesman Review, 18 June 1986, p. 12.
  • "Officials Find More Tained Capsules." The Spokesman Review, 20 Jan. 1986.
  • Rosenwald, Lonnie. "Rash of Tampering Could Kill Capsules." The Spokesman Review, 1 July 1986.
  • "Capsule-Spiking Killing Suspect Must Stay In Jail." The Spokesman Review, 18 Dec. 1987.
  • "Daughter Implicates Nickell." The Spokesman Review, 27 Apr. 1988.
  • "Daughter Says Her Mother Plotted Stepfather's Death." The Spokesman Review, 26 Apr. 1988.
  • Rosenwald, Lonnie. "Trial to Renew Wenatchee Couple's Grief for Son." The Spokesman Review, 18 Apr. 1988.
  • "Poisoning Evidence Released." The Spokesman Review, 3 Mar. 1988.
  • "Widow is Suspect in Tampering Case." Longview Daily News, 15 June 1987.
  • Wikipidia - Stella Nickell, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stella_Nickell.
  • Wadler, Joyce, and Meg Grant. People, 4 July 1988, people.com/archive/killing-her-husband-wasnt-enough-for-stella-nickell-to-make-her-point-she-poisoned-a-stranger-vol-30-no-1/.
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