MURDER BY POISON: RARE OR RARELY DETECTED

 

By Sgt. (Ret.) Tony Monheim

Law and Order Magazine, November 2011

 

He woke up vomiting and doubled over in pain. On March 2nd, 1995, 31-year-old Glenn Turner, a police officer in Cobb County, Georgia, was admitted to the emergency room complaining of flu-like symptoms.  When his condition seemed to improve, he was released and allowed to return home.  The next day, his wife, Lynn Turner, a 911-operator, came home from work and found her husband dead in their bed.  Since his death was unexpected, and he was in excellent health, Turner’s body was autopsied.  Other than a slightly enlarged heart, the medical examiner could find no other abnormalities and ruled the death to be of natural causes.

 

Four days after Officer Turner’s funeral, Lynn Turner moved in with a Forsythe County deputy sheriff named Randy Thompson. She subsequently received her deceased husband’s pension and death benefits, which included a $153,000 life insurance policy.

 

Thompson and Lynn Turner eventually had two children together.  By 2001, their relationship was in a tailspin.  One evening, Thompson was rushed to the emergency room vomiting and exhibiting symptoms eerily similar to those Officer Turner suffered five years earlier.  Thompson, like Turner, was also released from the hospital after feeling better.  He returned home and died the next day. At the autopsy, the medical examiner noted that Thompson had clogged arteries and therefore ruled the death to be naturally caused.

 

When Officer Turner’s family learned of Thompson’s death, they became immediately suspicious. They voiced their concerns to the medical examiner and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).  Officer Turner’s body was exhumed and re-autopsied.  Results showed both Turner and Thompson had oxalate crystals in their kidneys.  Oxalate crystals are formed by ethylene glycol poisoning.  Ethylene glycol is the main ingredient in anti-freeze.  Lynn Turner had laced lime Jell-O with anti-freeze and poisoned her husband and her boyfriend for their life insurance money. She was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, where in 2010, she committed suicide by overdosing on blood pressure medication she had hoarded in her cell.

 

Although murder with poison is considered rare in law enforcement circles, it may be that poisoning is actually not that rare, just rarely detected. All too often, the poison is only discovered after family members become suspicious and contact authorities who conduct an exhumation of the body. The toxic substance is then detected at a second autopsy. Renowned forensic toxicologist Dr. John Trestrail insists that, “If we missed this one, how many more have been missed? If all those buried in our cemeteries who were poisoned could raise their hands, we would be shocked by the numbers.” Unfortunately, the condemning evidence is buried with the victim.

 

 

“Poison is in everything, and nothing is without poison.  The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”

                 -Paracelsus (1493-1541)

 

 

                          

In addition, most investigators are unaware that the standard toxicology screenings in even the most modern, advanced morgues throughout the country are sorely limited in scope.  According to Dr. Emma Lew, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner, of Miami-Dade County, Florida, “The normal tox-screen only checks for common compounds such as cocaine, opiates and alcohol. If certain poisons are suspected, a specific analysis must be requested and conducted for each one, and these toxins will not be revealed in routine testing. Poisoning can be subtle and is often overlooked.”

This is what the killer counts on. He or she is hopeful that the average death investigator is so accustomed to viewing trauma-laden corpses that the subtleties of a poisoning homicide will go unnoticed.  Ninety-five percent of all murders cause some type of break of the skin (bullet wounds, stab wounds, ligature marks, blunt-force trauma, etc.)  In only about 5 per cent of all murder cases is there no visible trauma. The absence of trauma suggests natural death to many detectives, and this plays right into the poisoner’s hands.  In his book, Criminal Poisoning, Dr. Trestrail warns investigators that “all deaths with no visible signs of trauma must be considered a poisoning, until facts prove otherwise.”

 

 

History

The name of the first person to commit murder with poison has, of course, been lost to the ages.  Ancient man initially used deadly plant substances such as aconite and curare to place poison on the tips of their hunting arrows and spears.  Ultimately, someone realized that whatever could bring down a huge beast could also kill a man. As early as 4500 BC, the Sumerians were the first to document the lethal effects of poisoning. They even worshipped a “goddess of poisoning” known as Gula. Paintings in Egyptian tombs (3000 BC) describe a procedure for extracting poison (cyanide) from the pits of peaches.

 

Murder with poison took a giant leap forward in the 8th century when an Arab chemist synthesized arsenic into an odorless, tasteless powder that easily dissolved in water.  Arsenic poisoning became rampant and essentially escaped criminal detection for the next 10 centuries. In 1650, a famous Italian poisoner named Madame Toffana used arsenic trioxide to poison more than 600 people, including two popes. In Germany and France “schools of poison” were opened and conducted a brisk business teaching students how to kill with poison.  Early methods for the detection of poison were crude and imprecise.  Animals were often fed the remains of the victim’s last meal to determine if it contained poison.  In ancient China, cooked rice was stuffed into the victim’s mouth, removed after one hour, and fed to a chicken.  If the chicken died, it was decided that poison was the culprit.

 

“A poison in a small dose is medicine and in a large dose is a poison.”

    -Alfred Taylor, 19th Century toxicologist

 

 

By the early 1900s, poisonings were so rampant that it became apparent that a basic methodology had to be developed to determine if poison had been used as the murder weapon.  This led to the creation of a new field of science known as forensic toxicology.  Great strides have been made since the development of this discipline and today most classical poisons are detectable, although new and obscure poisons are constantly being created. It requires true diligence for the forensic chemist to keep up with these developments and advances.

 

Why Use Poison?

 

If poisoning is suspected during the course of a death investigation, the homicide investigator must ask, “Why would this particular killer decide to use poison instead of a gun, knife, club or rope?”  There are several cogent reasons why this mode of murder is utilized.  

 

First and perhaps most importantly, are the personality traits common to the typical poisoner. Many criminal profilers equate the poisoner with the bomber.  Both leave their deadly packages on the crime scene and flee, waiting for the results of their diabolical plot to take effect. They are both cowardly acts committed by individuals who abhor confrontation. 

 

The poisoner, in particular, avoids both face-to-face arguments and physical altercations; however, he may write bold and threatening, but generally anonymous, letters to perceived enemies. The investigator should therefore inquire if the victim received any threatening notes or packages prior to his death. Rather than confront the victim directly, the poisoner may also make journal or diary entries expressing their hatred for the victim and how they would dearly love to punish that person. Consequently, if a search is conducted of the suspect’s residence investigators should pay particular attention to any written material. Very often, threatening letters are written but never mailed.

 

Another trait shared by poisoners is that they covet. That is, they desire to possess what the victim possesses, whether it is fame, money, power or love. Their narcissistic character drives them to believe that they “deserve” more out of life and that they are entitled, while others are not.  This entitlement translates into arrogance and self-admiration. They truly believe they are always the smartest person in the room.  This may, in fact, work to the investigator’s advantage. The poisoner’s hubris and condescending attitude makes him/her particularly vulnerable during interrogation due to a desire to pontificate about their intellectual superiority.

 

Poison is a silent killer that leaves no trauma or messy crime scene behind. The death appears completely natural, and there is no gore for the squeamish killer to witness or clean up. Poisoning also allows for multiple murder attempts without obvious exposure. If the first dose is not fatal, the killer may try again and again without risk. In fact, some poisons, such as arsenic, are cumulative and may be given repeatedly in small quantities until lethal levels are reached within the body. 

 

Poison also permits the killer to justify his or her actions. The killer rationalizes that he has merely placed the fatal concoction within the victim’s reach.  It is actually the victim who decides to ingest the mixture.  The killer can then convince himself that it is the victim who is responsible for his own demise.

 

However, the overriding reason why poison is such an alluring way to commit murder is that the killer has a very good chance of getting away with it.  The crime routinely leaves no witnesses. The weapon is invisible allowing for plausible deniability and, in general, permits the killer to escape detection by being far removed from the death scene with an impeccable alibi.

 

 

Who Poisons?

 

Individuals who use poison as a means to kill are very often found to be highly intelligent and are typically willing to invest numerous hours researching their malevolent schemes.  Much of this research is conducted through the Internet or at the local library and can be easily tracked by the resourceful homicide investigator. Unlike other modes of murder, poisoning requires a fiendish familiarity with the complexities of the murder weapon. It is essential that the perpetrator knows how to obtain the poison, how to deliver it stealthily, and how not to arouse the suspicion of the authorities after the victim’s death. Because an intimate knowledge of the toxin is required, a high percentage of poisoners have medical backgrounds or affiliations.

 

It is widely thought that most poisoners are female; however statistics do not support this assumption.  Killers who utilize poisons are nearly equally divided between male and female. As newspaper journalist Frank McKinney Hubbard once pointed out, “When you consider what chance women have to poison their husbands it’s a wonder there isn’t more of it done.”

 

Poisoning is a deliberate act that is ruthlessly plotted. It is rarely carried out impulsively or in the heat of passion. The classic components of any homicide investigation: motive, means and opportunity are certain to be present in a poisoning death.  

 

Motive may be specific or random. The killer may target a particular individual, a particular group of individuals, or chose victims indirectly.  A complete victimology of the deceased will likely reveal a killer’s motivation. The exception would be the toxicomaniac.  Toxicomania is a rare mental disorder in which the individual has an obsession with poisons and poisoning.  This mania is similar to a pyromaniac’s obsession with fire or a kleptomaniac’s obsession with stealing. Toxicomaniacs have an overwhelming compulsion to kill with poison. In 1972, Graham Fredrick Young, a toxicomaniac, was convicted of two murders and two attempted murders with poison.  He had suffered from this strange affliction since boyhood and is believed to have poisoned dozens of classmates and co-workers throughout his lifetime. Graham’s stepmother died when he was 14 years old, and it is now believed that he caused her death by the use of an exotic toxin.

 

The random poisoner is often driven by arrogance and conceit. An egotistic belief that he is intellectually superior to law enforcement (along with an ardent disdain for authority) incites him to prove that he can kill and not get caught. A variation of the random poisoner is the terrorist who kills randomly but for a specific purpose. Although, terrorist acts with poison have been, thus far, sporadic, the potential for massive casualties caused by deadly agents such as ricin, anthrax, botulinum, cyanide gas, sarin gas, and typhoid are frighteningly real.

 

Once the motive is established, the investigator must determine if the suspect had the means and the opportunity to strike. Means requires that the killer have a working knowledge of the exact poison used and the ability to obtain a lethal dose. Opportunity necessitates access to the victim coupled with a close familiarity of the victim’s habits and schedule.

 

While examining “who poisons”, we must also consider “who gets poisoned”. Who are the victims of this heinous act?  Poisoning murders overwhelming involve a single killer and a single victim.  Excluding the truly random act of poisoning, the relationship between the offender and the victim is typically clear and distinct. Once the crime has been identified as a murder with poison, the list of suspects is usually quite short.  Remember that access is the key. Who could have delivered the virulent mixture? Who is capable of procuring the poison? Who would benefit from the victim’s death? Satisfactorily answering these three questions will most likely reveal the killer’s identity.

 

It is obvious why the average poisoning involves only one victim.  Should two or three individuals become ill or die after ingesting the same food or liquid, suspicions would certainly be aroused.  It is, therefore, undoubtedly to the killer’s advantage to target one victim at a time. Once successful though, the poisoner may continue to kill. Just as a serial killer becomes emboldened by getting away with murder after murder, the poisoner’s already arrogant personality makes him feel invincible when his guilt is not uncovered, and repeated poisonings may occur.

 

 

Sources of Poison

 

The “perfect poison” would be odorless, colorless, tasteless and easy to dissolve in liquid. Ideally, minute amounts ingested would cause death, but a death that is postponed until the killer can establish an iron-clad alibi. It would also be virtually undetectable at autopsy. Although the “perfect poison” does not exist (as far as we know), there are many substances that come close. 

 

The average garage, toolshed or even kitchen may contain scores of poisons. Common plants such as Henbane, Water Hemlock, Nightshade, Monkshood (aconite), Castor Bean (Ricin), Foxglove, Angel’s Trumpet (atropine and scopolamine), Daphne, Narcissus, Rhododendron and Strychnine Tree are easily acquired or grown. One of the most poisonous plants in the world, the Oleander, grows abundantly in every state with a moderate climate.

 

The Internet can be an infinite source for deadly poisons.  A simple Google search for “how to kill with poison” yields thousands of hits.  Underground publications such as The Anarchist’s Cookbook or The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook (both readily available online) provide complete instructions on how to poison a person with ordinary household items such as a potato or chewing tobacco. As mentioned earlier anti-freeze contains the deadly poison ethylene glycol.

 

Garage sales, flea markets, and Internet auctions are excellent sources for bottles that contain banned poisons.  Collectable antique bottles create a terrific resource for the would-be poisoner. Antiquated bottles emblazoned with a skull and cross bones (arsenic bottles are a favorite) are quick sellers, and when sold, often contain unused poison. The poisoner may also obtain chemicals through the workplace. Potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide are plentiful in the jewelry, metallurgy and insecticide business, for example.  Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, exterminators and landscapers all have easy access to an array of poisons.

 

 

Symptoms

 

There are a host of classic symptoms of poisoning.  Fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps all sound like a typical bout with the flu, but they are also characteristic of poisoning. Rapid hair loss occurs when heavy metal poisons such as arsenic, antimony, or thallium are used. Brittle fingernails and thin white lines observed across the nail, known as Mees lines, are also consistent with heavy metal poisoning. Small speckles on the skin are indicative of chronic arsenic poisoning.

 

Odors at the death scene, or at the autopsy, emitting from the corpse can also be a significant clue. Arsenic creates a garlicky smell. Some pesticides elicit the scent of shoe polish, and Vacor (rat poison) produces an odor similar to peanuts. Potassium cyanide or sodium cyanide when ingested mixes with stomach acid to form hydrogen cyanide. Hydrogen cyanide carries the fragrance of bitter almonds; however, a genetic oddity of nature only equips 40 percent of the general population with the olfactory ability to smell the bitter almonds. Sixty percent of investigators will smell nothing at all when the body is opened at autopsy.

 

 

Red Flags

 

There are a number of subtle indicators that may serve to alert the death investigator to the possibility of murder with poison:

Investigators should also be aware that a murder with poison can easily be staged to appear to be a suicide or accidental death. This is particularly true in cases where overdoses of medication, or illegal drugs, are the cause of death.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Murder with poison may be much more prevalent than we realize. Even if the death appears to be natural, accidental or suicidal, it is the investigator’s duty to consider all possibilities, including poisoning. Poisoning can be subtle and is often overlooked. Homicide detectives are conditioned to expect any murder to be accompanied by obvious signs of trauma. A lack of trauma should not rule out the possibility of murder. The typical poisoner is intelligent, clever and cocky. A game of “cat and mouse” with detectives can be exhilarating and satisfying for the individual who kills with poison. Since most medical examiner’s and coroner’s offices today only perform perfunctory tox-screens, it is essential that the death investigator decipher the obscure clues of the case to determine if the victim was murdered with poison.

 

It is strongly recommended that those who are charged with the criminal investigation of death obtain a copy of Dr. John Harris Trestrail’s book: Criminal Poisoning: An Investigative Guide for Law Enforcement.