D.P. Lyle, M.D. Discusses Famous Cases: Drugs, Poisons, Toxins & Death
Crime & Science Radio presents D.P. Lyle, M.D:
Tonight we’re focusing on a subject that seems to be a favorite among writers; one subject that I get the most letters on in regards to how someone can be “done in” with drugs, poisons, etc. We are going to dive into the world of toxicology, and explore some famous cases that give a better understanding of how forensic toxicology works.
Let us begin with the famous case in San Diego that was given the name: “The American Beauty Murder.” Kristin Rossum, a toxicologist by trade, was a beautiful blonde girl, very smart, very personable, came from a wealthy family, and grew up in Claremont, California. She was on a trajectory for a successful life, although she developed some drug problems along the way and got side-tracked for just a bit. She got back on course when she met and married Greg de Villers in 1995. She enrolled and graduated with honors from San Diego State, kicked her drug habit, and ended up taking a job as a toxicologist in the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office.
As life would have it, however, she ended up having an affair with a man by the name of Dr. Michael Robertson who was the chief toxicologist and her boss at the lab. Turns out she and her husband were not getting along so well. On November 6, 2000 at around 9:00 p.m., Rossum called 911. The paramedics arrived and found Kristin on the phone and her husband, Greg, on the bed: unresponsive. The oddity was that the bed was sprinkled with rose petals (i.e., this is where the “American Beauty” case title came into play because those rose petals were reminiscent of the movie with the same name).
Kristin told the police that she believed Greg had committed suicide. They accepted this explanation because, at the time, they didn’t have anything else to believe. But Greg’s family said that there was no way their son would do drugs or commit suicide. He had a new job that he was excited about, and basically, was happy with life. Paramedics, to their credit, continued their investigation and found out about Kristin’s affair and that Greg had threatened to expose her relapse into crystal meth which she actually stole from the lab. Both she and her lover, Dr. Robertson, were fired. Him for having the affair with an employee, and she for her drug issues.
At first she thought she’d get away with this crime, being that she was in the toxicology department and if the ME did the autopsy on Greg, well…they were family in a way, so the ME should believe her story. The ME, in his wisdom, decided to outsource this case; he thought it was too incestuous and too “close to home,” so he outsourced it to the L.A. crime lab.
In L.A., during the autopsy, the ME discovered that Greg had seven times the lethal dose of fentanyl. (This is a synthetic opioid, like a narcotic, but extremely powerful; it is three hundred times stronger than morphine.) A small amount of fentanyl will take you down and cause you to die of asphyxiation. If you recall, some time ago, Chechen rebels took over a theater in Russia; they were strapped with bombs. The Russians surrounded it, pumped fentanyl into the building through the air conditioning system and took the terrorist’s down before they could set off the bombs. Unfortunately, the fentanyl was highly lethal and over 100 innocent people died too.
This drug can be taken orally, by injection, or with patches and is used to help people suffering terminal pain. As the investigation continued, Kristin’s explanation of Greg committing suicide got more and more unbelievable. Especially when it was discovered that Kristin had called Greg’s employer the day of the murder and said he wasn’t coming in because he wasn’t feeling well. They also discovered that Kristin had gone to a recent toxicology conference that had discussed fentanyl and how hard it was to detect.
Remember, this was fifteen years ago and tests were not sophisticated enough to find certain “untraceable” drugs and fentanyl was one of them. Kristin knew this and had access to some in the toxicology lab.
During the autopsy, there were needle marks found on Greg, as well. Now some were explainable—
where the paramedics, nurses, doctors, etc., had tried to help him. But there was one that could not be explained. The ME postulated that this was the injection site. Of course, this caused more problems for Kristin because, after all, if he had committed suicide and injected himself, then Greg would have gone out in two or three seconds. He would have no time to toss out a syringe or patches, and there were neither found at the crime scene. Most damning came when they investigated Kristin’s finances and it came to light that she had a preferred customer card for a local grocery and the day Greg died, she had purchased from there one red rose; hence, the rose petals on the bed.
Kristin was tried and convicted; given a sentence of ninety years. Her boyfriend, Dr. Robertson, split. He was from Australia and he disappeared and never returned. To this day, no one knows if he was a part of this crime.
The basic lesson in this crime, and all crimes, is that it doesn’t matter how clever a killer is because they will be found out. In this case the L.A. crime lab did its due diligence, but if searched for hard enough, all toxins can be found.
When a toxicologist is brought in on any case, they must determine certain things: if drugs are present, the levels of the drug present, how they entered the body, and was the level of the drug enough to alter a person’s activity. An easy example of this is testing a person’s blood alcohol level. Such as, if a person has an accident and crashes into a telephone pole and their blood alcohol level is far over the legal limit, it’s fairly easy to make an assumption as to how they lost control of the vehicle and died. Whereas, if someone injured themselves on the job and they had drugs or alcohol levels that were above the legal limit, this could be a liability issue where police would have to investigate where the company is liable because they had poor safety issues.
Now, it is important to note that anything and everything can be a poison; even water can kill you, and I don’t mean just by drowning. If you drink enough water, you wash your electrolytes out of your system, and the sodium level in your blood drops dramatically. Your brain can swell, you can develop cardiac arrhythmia, and you can die. There is even a psychiatric disorder called “compulsive water drinking.” These people drink copious gallons of water a day and can (and will) die.
Oxygen can also kill you. If you breathe in 100% pure oxygen for an extended period of time, it wipes out the lungs: you change the elasticity of the lungs, they become stiff and finally scar, they quit exchanging gas, and you can die. We use pure oxygen in the hospital for patients with severe lung disease, but we try to use it for the briefest amount of time. So remember, anything can kill. There is an old adage in medicine that states: “What can cure, can kill.”
Like digitalis. A little dose helps strengthen the heart muscle, but a lot can and will produce arrhythmia and kill you. In fact, it is a deadly poison; we know that it comes from the foxglove plant.
We all have levels of poisons in our systems right now; these include, lead, arsenic, cyanide, mercury, and others, because they’re part of the environment and part of who we are. They are safe levels, homeopathic levels, and don’t do anything. When those levels start rising, however, they become toxic and later can become lethal.
As it was in Greg’s case, when the ME and toxicologist do their jobs, they use a two-tiered system. The first tier is a presumptive test, which is quick, cheap and shows if a certain class of drug is present in the corpse. That’s all the test will tell you. The second-tier is confirmatory testing, which are tests that are highly expensive and time consuming, which means that these tests cannot be done on everybody because the ME budget won’t allow it.
A typical/presumptive drug screen tests for things like, alcohol, ethanol, acetone, etc. There are also acid screens that look for acids and barbiturates, and others.
Using these various screens, the ME determines what “class” of drug is present. If one of these quick tests/screens shows something there, he/she has to go further into the confirmatory testing to see what, exactly, it is. Such as: If the presumptive test shows a certain type of drug, this could be Sudafed (legal) or crystal meth (illegal). The confirmatory testing (sometimes referred to as GC/MS or GC/IR) knows every chemical fingerprint of every known chemical. Using gas chromatography, the fingerprint of the substance is found.
The next famous case we’ll be discussing is one that you most likely will remember because it rocked the nation.
On June 5, 1986, Stella Nickell was at home when her husband, Bruce, came home from work with a migraine and took two Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules; he collapsed and died just a few minutes later. The coroner determined it was a natural death. But then, a week later, 40-year-old Susan Snow took an Extra-Strength Excedrin and her husband Paul Webking took two of them from the same bottle. In only a few minutes, Susan King collapsed and died, but nothing happened to Webking.
At the autopsy, ME Janet Miller detected the distinctive odor of cyanide. You hear about this all the time; that corpses with cyanide in their system emit the odor of burnt/bitter almond that can be detected. Yes and no, actually. Some corpses do and others do not. But, more importantly, the ability to detect this odor is genetically determined. You can’t learn to detect it; the ability is genetic. 50% of the population can smell it; the other 50% cannot, and no one knows why evolution is like that. Janet Miller could detect the odor and further testing showed that cyanide was the cause of Susan Snow’s death.
She went on to test the bottle of Excedrin; three of the pills remaining in the bottle had cyanide, but the rest were clean. So, Webking, apparently, had just got lucky and taken two clean ones.
But then another bottle was found in a nearby grocery store, from the same lot found in Susan’s home. Bristol-Myers was the manufacturer. This opened a variety of scary doors. Could this be a manufacturing issue? A saboteur in the company that was contaminating pills? A serial killer? They tested various lots and the company immediately pulled all the Excedrin off the market (they ended up changing them into caplets instead of the powder-filled capsules that could be tampered with.)
Stella Nickell came forward and turned over two bottles she had as well. Testing was done and cyanide was found in both bottles…and in Bruce Nickell’s remains. Now there was two dead and contaminated bottles from different lots, which made “accidental death” less likely. This raised the specter of product tampering, which brought in the FBI crime lab who started their own investigation and not only found cyanide in the bottles but also some odd, green flecks. When this was tested, it turned out to be an algae used in home aquariums which sold under the brand name of Algae Destroyer. So the FBI dug deeper.
They soon found out that Stella Nickell had taken out insurance policies on her husband, and had purchase the Destroyer product for their own home aquarium. They also found that Stella had visited a local library and checked out books regarding poisons. Her fingerprints were found all over the pages of Algaecide. She was tried in 1988, convicted and sentenced. Apparently, Stella had taken the capsules apart and mixed the algae with the Excedrin powder and put it back in the capsule. She knew if it was only her husband, though, who suffered death that the focus would have been turned on her as being the prime suspect. So she had purchased and tampered with other bottles so that other people would have this happen to them.
The last famous case to discuss is the death of Kurt Cobain. Cobain was the lead singer for Nirvana which was one of the bands at the forefront of the “grunge movement” that came out of Seattle, Washington.
Kurt died at the age of 27, like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, which put him into the famous “27 Club.” He had a long history of drug abuse and depression and on April 8, 1994, he was found dead in his Seattle home. He was discovered by an electrician named Gary Smith who called the police when he saw Cobain laying there, on his back, with a shotgun on his chest. He had died from a gunshot wound to the head.
A great deal of heroine was found in his system and there was a suicide note, of sorts, left behind. It was argued as to whether it was an actual suicide note or not. Question: Was this suicide or murder? The fact that heroine was in his system and he shot himself was not uncommon in a suicide. Many drug themselves first in order to get the courage to end their lives. The ME decided this was a suicide even though conspiracy theorists have fought against that for some time.
The major evidence that was unusual was that the shotgun was laying on his chest inverted, and the ejected shell was lying to the side opposite the injection site 10-12 feet away. This case also became a battle of forensic toxicologists and ME’s. One side said that with that much heroine in his system, he would not have been able to fire the gun. The other side stated that he was such an addict that three times the lethal limit of heroine, which would kill most people, would put a person like him into a “goofy” state but he would not be incapacitated.
Although this argument still rages today, the summary of these cases is what the toxicologist and ME have to do, the important principles they follow, and find evidence that will help the police solve the crime.
The job of an ME and a toxicologist are hard ones. Those who wish to get into this field should first get a degree in chemistry from college, then work in a lab and learn the principles of toxicology, and then move into the forensic field. This job is tedious, exciting, boring, and wonderful all at the same time.