is a Seattle-area woman who was sentenced to 99 years in prison
for killing her husband in June 1986 (when she was 42 years old)
by lacing his Excedrin capsules with cyanide after buying him life
insurance policies amounting to $176,000.
She had put three other poisoned
bottles back in the store to make it look like the work of a
serial killer, killing another woman, 40-year-old Sue Snow, in the
process. She had been inspired by the Chicagoland Tylenol scare of
1982. Her May 1988 conviction and prison sentence was the first
where product tampering was the charge.
(born August 7, 1943) is an American woman who was sentenced to 90
years in prison for product tampering after she allegedly poisoned
Excedrin capsules with lethal cyanide, resulting in the deaths of
her husband Bruce and of Susan Snow. Her May 1988 conviction and
prison sentence were the first under federal product tampering
laws instituted after the Chicago Tylenol murders.
Stella Nickell was born Stella Maudine
Stephenson in Colton, Oregon, to Alva Georgia "Jo" (née
Duncan; later changed her name to Cora Lee) and George Stephenson,
and grew up poor. By age sixteen, she was pregnant with her
daughter Cynthia. Nickell then moved to Southern California,
married, and had another daughter. She began to have various legal
troubles, including a conviction for fraud in 1968, a charge the
following year of beating Cynthia with a curtain rod, and a
conviction for forgery in 1971. She served six months in jail for
the fraud charge, and was ordered into counseling after the abuse
Stella met Bruce Nickell in 1974. Nickell was a
heavy equipment operator with a drinking habit, which suited
Stella's lifestyle, and the two were married in 1976. In the
course of their twelve-year marriage, Bruce Nickell entered rehab
and gave up drinking. Reportedly, Stella resented this. Her bar
visits were curtailed by Bruce's sobriety, and Stella cultivated a
home aquarium as a new hobby.
On June 5, 1986, the couple were living in
Auburn, Washington when Bruce Nickell, 52, came home from work
with a headache. According to Stella, Nickell took four
Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules from a bottle in their home for
his headache and collapsed minutes later. Nickell died shortly
thereafter at Harborview Medical Center, where treatment had
failed to revive him. His death was initially ruled to be by
natural causes, with attending physicians citing emphysema.
A second death, less than week a later, forced
authorities to reconsider the cause of Nickell's death. On June
11, Susan Snow, a 40-year old Auburn bank manager, took two
Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules for an early-morning headache.
Snow's husband, Paul Webking, took two capsules from the same
bottle for his arthritis and left the house for work. At 6:30 am,
the Snows' fifteen-year-old daughter found Susan Snow collapsed on
the floor of her bathroom, unresponsive and with a faint pulse.
Paramedics were called and transported Snow to Harborview Medical
Center, but she died later the same day without regaining
During an autopsy on Susan Snow, Assistant
Medical Examiner Janet Miller detected the scent of bitter
almonds, an odor distinctive to cyanide. Tests verified that Snow
had died of acute cyanide poisoning. Investigators examined the
contents of the Snow-Webking household and discovered the source
of the cyanide: the bottle of Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules
that both Snow and Webking had used the morning of Snow's death.
Three capsules out of those that remained in the 60-capsule bottle
were found to be laced with cyanide in toxic quantities.
A murder by cyanide was sensational news in
Washington. When another tainted bottle from the same lot was
found in a grocery store in nearby Kent, Washington, the
manufacturers of Excedrin, Bristol-Myers, responded to the
discovery with a heavily-publicized recall of all Extra-Strength
Excedrin products in the Seattle, Washington area, and a group of
drug companies came together to offer a $300,000 reward for the
capture of the person responsible.
In response to the publicity, Stella Nickell
came forward on June 19. She told police that her husband had
recently died suddenly, after taking pills from a 40-capsule
bottle of Extra-Strength Excedrin with the same lot number as the
one that had killed Susan Snow. Tests by the FDA confirmed the
presence of cyanide in Bruce Nickell's remains and in two Excedrin
bottles Stella Nickell had turned over to police.
Initial suspicions were directed at the
manufacturers of the Excedrin capsules. Both Paul Webking and
Stella Nickell filed wrongful death lawsuits against
Bristol-Myers, and the FDA inspected the Morrisville, North
Carolina plant where Extra-Strength Excedrin lot 5H102 had been
packaged, but found no traces of cyanide to explain its presence
in the Washington bottles.
On June 18, Bristol-Myers recalled all Excedrin
capsules in the United States, pulling them from store shelves and
warning consumers to not use any they may already have bought; two
days later the company announced a recall of all of their
non-prescription capsule products. On June 24, a
cyanide-contaminated bottle of Extra-Strength Anacin-3 was found
at the same store where Susan Snow had bought her contaminated
Excedrin. On June 27, Washington State put into an effect a 90-day
ban on the sale of non-prescription medication in capsules.
Examination of the contaminated bottles by the
FBI Crime Lab found that, in addition to containing cyanide
powder, the poisoned capsules also contained flecks of an unknown
green substance. Further tests showed that the substance was an
algaecide used in home aquariums, sold under the brand name Algae
Focusing the investigation
With contamination of the Excedrin at the
source having been ruled out, investigators began to focus their
investigation on the end-users of the product. The FBI began an
investigation into possible product tampering having been the
source of the poison. At the time, Excedrin was packaged in
plastic bottles with the mouth of the bottle sealed with foil and
the lid secured to the bottle with plastic wrap.
Both Paul Webking and Stella Nickell were asked
to take polygraph examinations. Webking did so, though he
complained in subsequent press about his treatment by the FBI.
Nickell declined to take a polygraph exam through the lawyer
representing her in the wrongful-death suit she had filed, who
told reporters that she was too "shaken up" to be subjected to the
Investigators' suspicions began to turn to
Stella Nickell when they discovered that she claimed that the two
contaminated Excedrin bottles that she had turned over to police
had been purchased at different times and different locations. A
total of five bottles had been found to be contaminated in the
entire country, and it was regarded as suspicious that Nickell
would happen to have acquired two of them purely by chance.
With investigatory focus turned to Stella
Nickell, detectives uncovered more circumstantial evidence
pointing to her as the culprit. Nickell had taken out a total of
about $76,000 in insurance coverage on her husband's life, with an
additional payout of $100,000 if his death was accidental. She was
also known to have, even before Susan Snow's death, repeatedly
disputed doctors' ruling that her husband had died of natural
causes. Further FBI investigation showed that Bruce Nickell's
purported signatures on at least two of the insurance policies in
his name had been forged.
Investigators were also able to verify that
Nickell had purchased Algae Destroyer from a local fish store; it
was speculated that the algaecide had become mixed with the
cyanide when Nickell used the same container to crush both
substances without washing it in between uses.
Nickell finally consented to a polygraph
examination in November 1986. She failed it and investigators
narrowed their focus to her even farther; however, concrete
evidence proving that Nickell had ever purchased or used cyanide
was lacking, and despite their relative certainty that Stella
Nickell had orchestrated the poisonings as either an elaborate
cover-up for an insurance-motivated murder of her husband, or as a
desperate attempt to force her husband's death to be ruled an
accident, to increase her insurance payout, they were unable to
build a strong enough case to support an arrest.
Breaking the case
In January 1987, Stella Nickell's adult
daughter, Cynthia Hamilton, approached police with information:
Nickell had spoken to her daughter repeatedly about wanting her
husband dead. He was a bore, Nickell said, who after having gotten
sober, preferred to stay home and watch television rather than go
out to bars. Nickell, Hamilton claimed, had even told her that she
had tried to poison Bruce previously with foxglove. When that
failed, she had begun library research into other methods and hit
upon cyanide. Cynthia also claimed that Nickell had spoken to her
about what the two of them could do with the insurance money if
Bruce Nickell were dead.
Records from the Auburn Public Library, when
subpoenaed, showed that Nickell had checked out numerous books
about poisons, including Human Poisonings from Native and
Cultivated Plants and Deadly Harvest. The former was
marked as overdue in library records, indicating that Nickell had
borrowed but never returned it. The FBI identified Nickell's
fingerprints on cyanide-related pages of a number of the works she
had checked out from the library in this period.
By the summer of 1987, even Nickell's attorneys
acknowledged that she was the prime suspect in the case.
Arrest and trial
On December 9, 1987, Stella Nickell was
indicted by a federal grand jury on five counts of product
tampering, including two which resulted in the deaths of Susan
Snow and Bruce Nickell, and arrested the same day. She went on
trial in April, 1988 and was found guilty of all charges on May 9,
after five days of jury deliberation.
Despite Nickell's legal team's claims of
jury-tampering and judicial misconduct having occurred, a motion
for a mistrial was denied and Nickell was sentenced to two
ninety-year terms for the charges relating to the deaths of Snow
and Bruce Nickell, and three ten-year terms for the other product
tampering charges. All sentences were to run concurrently, and the
judge ordered Nickell to pay a small fine and forfeit her
remaining assets to the families of her victims.
Nickell will be eligible for parole in 2018,
when she will be 73 years old.
Appeals and subsequent petitions
Nickell continued to maintain her innocence
after her trial. An appeal based on jury-tampering and judicial
misconduct issues was rejected by the United States Court of
Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in August 1989. A second appeal,
beginning in 2001 with the assistance of Innocence Project and
private detectives Al Farr and Paul Ciolino, requested a new trial
on the basis of new evidence having been discovered that the FBI
may have withheld documents from the defense.
The appeal was denied, though Nickell and her
team continue to assert her innocence. She claims that her
daughter Cynthia lied about Nickell's involvement in the case in
order to reap the $300,000 of reward money being offered. Cynthia
Hamilton eventually collected $250,000 of that money. Nickell also
alleges that the testimony of various smaller cogs in the case,
such as the store owner who testified about her having purchased
Algae Destroyer, was influenced by promises of payment.
After the 1982 Tylenol murders, FDA regulations
went into effect which made it a federal - rather than just a
state or local - crime to tamper with consumer products. Local and
state authorities are not, however, prevented from also filing
charges in such cases. Under this law, Nickell's crime was
prosecutable as a federal product tampering case as well as a
state murder case, and she was convicted not of murder, but of
product tampering that caused death. The possibility of state
charges for the actual murders of Susan Snow and Bruce Nickell
continues to exist.
A 2000 made-for-TV film was to be made about
the Stella Nickell case, but it was cancelled shortly before
production began based on strong objections from advertisers,
including Johnson & Johnson, owner of the Tylenol brand of
painkillers, which had featured in the Chicago Tylenol murders, a
prior product-tampering case. The film was to have aired on USA
Network, directed by Jeff Reiner and starring Katey Sagal.
Seattle author Gregg Olsen wrote about the
Nickell case in his book, Bitter Almonds: The True Story of
Mothers, Daughters and the Seattle Cyanide Murders. The case
was also featured on episodes of Forensic Files, The New
Detectives, and Snapped, as well as two episodes of Deadly Women.
four months following Elsroth's murder another copycat killing
occurred that was reminiscent of the Tylenol killings. On June 11,
1986, a 40-year-old Washington state bank manager, Sue Snow, woke
up with a headache at 6 a.m., went to her kitchen and took two
Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules. After wishing her 15-year-old
daughter Haley a good morning, she went into her bathroom, plugged
in her curling iron and turned on the shower.
Some 40 minutes
later, Haley went into the bathroom to see what was taking her
mother such a long time to get ready and found her mother lying
unconscious on the floor. She immediately phoned 911, and Sue Snow
was taken to a nearby hospital. Doctors worked frantically to
determine what was wrong with Sue, but, after just a few hours,
autopsy of Sue Snow, Assistant Medical Examiner Janet Miller
suspected cyanide poisoning from the distinct odor of bitter
almonds emanating from the body. Laboratory tests proved her
right. The source of the cyanide was traced to an innocuous
looking bottle of Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules. In response to
the death, the manufacturer of the drug, Bristol-Myers, nationally
recalled the product hoping to avert any more deaths.
On June 17, 1986,
one day following the highly publicized massive recall, the police
received a telephone call from a widow who feared her husband
could have been poisoned less than two weeks earlier. The woman,
Stella Nickell, told investigators that her husband Bruce suddenly
died on June 6, 1986, shortly after taking four Extra-Strength
Excedrin Capsules. Bruce Nickell's death was initially determined
to have been due to complications from emphysema. However, after
laboratory tests conducted on his blood on June 19, 1986, there
was no doubt that his death was caused by the ingestion of
cyanide. That same day, investigators recovered two tainted
Excedrin bottles from the Nickells' residence.
Chicago's Tylenol murders, fear swept through Washington state as
a result of the two cyanide-laced Excedrin deaths. The FBI joined
forces with Washington law enforcement agencies in an effort to
find the murderer and prevent further deaths. Investigators
determined that the drugs were most likely taken from area stores,
filled with cyanide and then returned to the stores.
In the months that followed, two more bottles
of Excedrin Extra-Strength Capsules that were recalled from stores
in Auburn and Kent, Washington were also found to contain cyanide.
All five bottles were taken to the FBI crime lab in Washington,
D.C., and examined by Roger Martz for fingerprints and other
evidence that might connect the victims to their killer. During
Martz's investigation of the bottles, he made an unusual
CBSNews.com reported Martz found each tainted
capsule contained minute specks of a green crystal-like substance.
Martz was able to link the tiny green crystals with algaecides
used in aquariums and fishponds. Moreover, he was able to pinpoint
the exact brand of algaecide found in all the capsules, which was
known as Algae Destroyer. The murderer could have used a container
that once held the Algae Destroyer to mix the cyanide before it
was eventually introduced into the capsules. Martz's connections
proved to be one of the most critical pieces of evidence in the
investigation, law enforcement officials discovered that Stella
Nickell not only owned a fish tank but had also bought Algae
Destroyer from a pet store prior to the murders. Investigators
also learned that Stella took out three life insurance policies on
her husband in the year prior to his death worth a total of
$71,000. According to Detective Mike Dunbar who worked on the
case, Stella stood to gain an additional $100,000 from her
insurance company if she was able to prove that his death was
accidental. Intriguingly, following Bruce's death Stella
confronted her doctor on several occasions about his decision to
list her husband's death as natural. The new evidence led
investigators to shift their focus onto Stella Nickell as the
primary suspect in the cyanide-laced Excedrin deaths.
Stella's failure to pass a lie detection test on November 18,
1986, the investigators became convinced that she murdered her
husband. The FBI and state police theorized that she placed the
cyanide in the Excedrin capsules, repackaged them and placed three
of the bottles in area stores and kept the other two bottles to
use to kill her husband. Stella attempted to make her husband's
death look like the work of a serial poisoner, thus escaping any
responsibility for the crime. The only problem the investigators
faced was trying to prove their theory.
Less than two months later, their big break
came. Stella's 27-year-old daughter from a previous marriage,
Cindy Hamilton, came forward with critical information. Cindy told
police that her mother often talked about killing Bruce, because
she was bored with the relationship. Cindy stated that her mother
even admitted to her that she tried to kill him with foxglove, but
her attempt failed. According to CBSNews.com, Cindy told
investigators that several months before Bruce's death, her mother
conducted research on cyanide at the local library.
Early in 1987, the FBI collected as much
evidence concerning Stella's possible involvement in the killing
of Bruce Nickell and Sue Snow. Library computers were searched and
the books that Stella checked-out were obtained by the FBI. One of
the books that Stella read was called Deadly Harvest, from
which the FBI was able to collect fingerprints. The pages that
contained the most prints were those relating to cyanide.
charged with the deaths of Sue Snow and Bruce Nickell on December
9, 1987 and her court trial began four months later. On May 9,
1988, a jury found Stella Nickell guilty of murder. She was
sentenced to 90 years in prison with eligibility for parole in
2018. Stella Nickell was the first person to be tried and
convicted for committing murder using product tampering.
Painkiller Panic: The Snow-Nickell Cyanide Murders
In June 1986, two Auburn residents were killed
by painkillers laced with cyanide. America immediately thought of
the unsolved 1982 Chicago Tylenol product-tampering murders in
which seven people died. Four years later, the scenario seemed to
be playing itself out again in King County Washington. But this
time, there was a suspect and an arrest. Because of product
tampering legislation passed in response to the Chicago killings,
these murders became a federal case.
Death By Emphysema?
On June 5, 1986 at 5:02 p.m., Stella Nickell
called an emergency volunteer fire department on the Kent-Black
Diamond Road. Her husband, heavy-equipment operator Bruce Nickell,
52, was in distress in their single-wide trailer home just off
Lake Moneysmith Road in the town of Auburn. When emergency
personnel arrived, she told them that Bruce had taken Excedrin
capsules and fallen unconscious. She showed them the bottle. Bruce
Nickell was rushed by helicopter to Harborview Hospital in
Seattle, where he soon died. After an autopsy, the cause of death
was declared to be emphysema.
Six days later, on June 11, just after 6:30
a.m., 15-year-old Hayley Snow found her mother, bank manager Sue
Snow, 40, collapsed in the bathroom with a faint pulse. Paramedics
rushed to the home at 1404 N Street NE in Auburn. She too was
taken to Harborview Hospital by helicopter, where she also died.
The Scent of Bitter Almonds
But this time, pathologists smelled the
telltale scent of bitter almonds during the autopsy, and
determined that cyanide poisoning had killed Sue Snow. The Food
and Drug Administration soon announced that Extra Strength
Excedrin capsules found at Snow’s home contained cyanide. They
informed the FBI, who took jurisdiction of the case.
Manufacturer Bristol-Myers initiated a
nationwide recall of Extra Strength Excedrin capsules, and
immediately stopped making the product. A consortium of drug
companies, alarmed about product tampering, posted a $300,000
Bristol-Myers and the industry were following
in the footsteps of Johnson & Johnson, whose swift reaction to the
1982 Tylenol case has been held up as a model of corporate
responsibility and good public relations. Johnson & Johnson warned
the public not to buy its product, stopped making and advertising
it, and recalled more than 30 million bottles worth more than 100
million dollars. They also posted a $100,000 reward.
A sweep of grocery and pharmacy shelves in King
County produced another tainted bottle from Johnny’s Market in
Kent, and the lot number of the bottle recovered from Sue Snow’s
home was publicized.
The next day, Bruce Nickell’s widow Stella, a
42-year old raven-haired security screener at Seattle-Tacoma
International airport, characterized by a neighbor as “a washed-up
honky-tonk girl,” called police. She said she had a bottle of
Excedrin in her home with the same lot number as the bottle that
had killed Sue Snow.
Correction: Death By Cyanide
When police arrived, Stella handed over two
bottles of Excedrin. Both were found to contain cyanide-laced
capsules. She said she had bought the bottles on two occasions,
one somewhere in Auburn, the other at Johnny’s Market in Kent. A
subsequent test of the deceased Bruce Nickell’s blood sample
showed that he, like Sue Snow, had died of cyanide poisoning.
The revised cause of death made a difference to
Stella Nickell. Under her husband’s insurance policy, which paid
out more for accidental death, she stood to receive an extra
On June 24th, a fifth bottle of cyanide-laced
pills appeared on retail shelves in South King County. This time
it was a bottle of Maximum Strength Anacin-3 at the Pay 'n Save
store where Sue Snow was thought to have bought her fatal
A total of five bottles containing
cyanide-laced capsules were recovered: the bottle Sue Snow had
purchased, the two bottles Stella Nickell had turned in, the
Excedrin found on the shelves at Johnny’s Market in Kent, and the
Anacin capsules discovered at Pay-n-Save in Auburn. In all the
tainted capsules, the cyanide was flecked with small green
crystals, determined to by an algae killer used to clean the water
Investigators found it remarkable that of only
five tainted bottles out of the 15,000 that had been screened,
Stella Nickell had turned in two of them, saying she had purchased
them two weeks apart at separate locations.
They also recalled that Stella Nickell had
several fish tanks in her trailer home. They learned she had
purchased the algae killer found in the cyanide, and that she had
been told by the clerk to crush it before using. Investigators
speculated she had used the same container to crush algae killer
and store cyanide.
Two more insurance policies on Bruce’s life now
came to light. Stella’s payoff now totaled $175,000. FBI document
examiners determined that Bruce’s signature on the applications
had been forged. Suspicious investigators, noting that $100,000 of
that would only be paid out because the cause of death was now
known to be cyanide, wondered if Stella had randomly killed Sue
Snow by planting the bottle that killed her on the Pay-N-Save
shelf, simply to bring attention to the fact Bruce had been
poisoned and increase her take.
Bored To Death
Around the time Stella failed a FBI polygraph,
her daughter from a previous marriage, Cindy Hamilton, 27, came
forward. Cindy said that her mother had talked of killing Bruce
Nickell, at one point discussing hiring a hit man. Cindy told the
FBI that her mother had wanted to kill recovering alcoholic Bruce
because after he had gone through rehab and sobered up, he had
become a bore. Instead of partying with Stella, long a regular
fixture on the Auburn-Kent tavern circuit, he chose to stay home
watching television or talking CB lingo on his citizen’s band
According to Cindy, Stella had pointed out that
if Bruce died, she and Cindy would have the cash they wanted to
open a tropical fish store, or perhaps a ceramics store, another
of Stella’s hobbies. Cindy told FBI investigators that Stella had
researched toxic local plants and other poisons at local
"C" For Cyanide
The Auburn Public Library, responding to an FBI
subpoena, revealed that Stella had checked out titles such as
Deadly Harvest and Human Poisoning from Native Plants.
Several “C” volumes from encyclopedias at the library were sent to
the FBI lab, where technicians determined that Stella had left
finger and palm prints on entries about cyanide in three
Stella was indicted in federal court and Cindy
testified against her at the trial. Cindy subsequently received
$250,000 of the $300,000 drug industry award. This has led some to
speculate that she may have initially conspired with her mother
against her stepfather, then testified against her mother for the
reward after her mother failed an FBI polygraph
Stella Nickell was found guilty in federal
court not of murder but of product tampering on May 9, 1988, and
was sentenced to 90 years. The Chicago Tylenol case had resulted
not only in the 1983 Federal Anti-Tampering Law under which she
was charged, but FDA requirements that products be packaged with
tamper-resistant technology such as blister-packs, bottle mouth
seal covers, shrink wrap bottle covers, visible seals that must be
broken to open the bottle, and taped box ends.
She maintains her innocence, claiming her
daughter lied for the reward money. She will be eligible for
parole in 2017. In the unlikely event she is paroled, at age 73,
she could still face state murder charges, which have never been
Who Killed Bruce Nickell and Sue
"Who Killed Sue Snow"
Reader's Digest, Feb 1991
It was just after 6 a.m. on June 11, 1986, when Sue
Snow, a 40 year-old bank manager in the Seattle suburb of Auburn,
pulled herself out of bed. She went to the kitchen and took two
Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules to help fight a throbbing
headache. Then, after greeting her daughter, Hayley, she went into
the bathroom and plugged in her curling iron.
At 6:40, Hayley, 15, noticed her
mother was taking a long time. "Mom?" she called out. There was no
answer--only the sound of running water. Entering the bathroom,
she found her mother sprawled unconscious on the floor, her
fingers splayed across her chest, her breathing labored. Rushed to
a hospital, Sue Snow died hours later without regaining
Doctors suspected an aneurysm in the brain, but
found no evidence of internal bleeding. The symptoms also
suggested an overdose, but Hayley insisted her mother didn't drink
or smoke, much less take drugs. Since the cause of death could not
be determined, an autopsy was ordered.
During the examination, one of the
pathologist's assistants detected a faint odor of bitter almonds
emanating from the body--a telltale sign of cyanide. Could Snow
have been poisoned? A lab test came back positive. Police
questioned the distraught family. Would Sue Snow have tried to
poison herself? Certainly not, they said. But thinking back to
that horrible morning, they wondered: Could the capsules have been
Another lab test confirmed it: the capsules
contained cyanide. When ingested, cyanide prevents cells from
using oxygen. It looks like table salt and a small dose can kill
rapidly. It's the perfect poison for murderers. On June 16, the
Food and Drug Administration published the lot number of the
tainted capsules. The manufacturer, Bristol-Myers, cabled stores
across the country to take the capsules off their shelves.
Meanwhile, police found two other bottles of contaminated
painkillers in Auburn and in Kent, a Seattle suburb adjoining
Hysteria spread through Washington. Police
stripped all nonprescription capsules from pharmacy shelves. The
King County Medical Examiner's office began checking recent
unexplained deaths to see if any were cyanide-caused, and a state
of emergency was declared in the county. A Head for Details. The
investigation was turned over to the FBI. Product tampering had
been made a federal crime after seven Chicago-area people died
from cyanide-spiked Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules in 1982--a
case that remains unsolved.
Sixty agents were assigned to the Snow case.
One of the agents who was to play a major role was Jack Cusack. At
43, the street-smart, prematurely gray 16-year veteran knew how to
read a killer's mind. His offhanded charm and casual style lured
suspects and witnesses into giving him crucial information. At
first Cusack thought the killer might be a political terrorist or
a disgruntled co-worker, but no one called to take credit or make
demands. Then on June 17, a 42 year-old woman named Stella Nickell
telephoned the police. She reported that 12 days earlier her
husband, Bruce, 52, had died suddenly after taking Extra-Strength
Bruce Nickell had already been buried, and his
autopsy reported the cause of death as emphysema. However, because
he had volunteered to be an organ donor, a sample of his blood
serum had been preserved. A test of the serum on June 19 showed
cyanide present. By that time the police had discovered two
bottles of contaminated capsules in the home.
To an increasingly jittery public, it now
looked as if a random killer was loose. A policeman in Auburn
voiced the dread that many felt: "We've got a maniac out there."
Cusack searched for some connection between Bruce Nickell, a
heavy-equipment operator for the state, and banker Sue Snow, but
none became apparent.
Then an alert young chemist at the FBI crime
lab in Washington, D.C., discovered something peculiar about the
cyanide in the five contaminated bottles--each contained tiny
crystal-like specks of green. Breaking the particles down
chemically, he identified the substance as an algae killer used in
home fish tanks. He even came up with the brand name: Algae
Someone must have mixed the cyanide in a
container used earlier for crushing algicide pellets.
Daily, the file on the killer grew thicker. An
agent was needed who could cut through the ponderous material. Ron
Nichols, an Annapolis-educated detective with a head for details,
As Nichols read through the file, one thing
kept bothering him. The FDA had examined more than 740,000
over-the-counter capsules in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.
Only the capsules in five bottles had turned out to be laced with
cyanide, and two of those were found in Stella Nickell's home.
If Stella had bought the two bottles at the
same time, it would seem a simple case of bad luck. The problem
was, Stella had said she bought them at different times in
different stores. The odds that it was a coincidence were
"The Woman Who Jingled." Stella Nickell seemed
an unlikely suspect. A grandmother, she had two daughters and
worked as a security guard at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. To all
appearances she and Bruce had been happy together. They lived in a
trailer on a large woody lot. Neighbors described her as cheerful
and hard-working. She seemed genuinely shocked and despondent when
Then one of the agents remembered something
seemingly insignificant from her investigation. "Stella Nickell
has a fish tank in her trailer," the agent told Cusack, who by now
had become the case supervisor.
Agents canvassed pet stores, asking if anyone
recalled selling Algae Destroyer to Nickell. On August 25 they hit
pay dirt. A clerk at a store in Kent identified Stella from a
photo montage. He remembered her because she had a little bell
attached to her purse. He called her "the woman who jingled."
The clerk's recollection, though tantalizing,
was neither enough to support an indictment nor enough to convince
Cusack this grandmother was a killer.
Yet, gradually, another side of Stella Nickell
began to emerge. An FBI background check turned up convictions in
California for check fraud, forgery and child abuse between 1968
and 1971. The Nickells were chronically short of money. They
barely survived a brush with bankruptcy, and before Bruce died,
the bank was moving to foreclose on their trailer.
By late summer, the agents began digging into
the Nickells' life-insurance records. Bruce's policy from the
state paid Stella $31,000. But if his death was "accidental," she
would collect an extra $105,000. Further, Stella had taken out two
additional $20,000 policies on his life in the year before he
In all, she stood to receive $176,000 if
Bruce's death were judged accidental. (For insurance purposes,
death by cyanide poisoning is considered an accident.) But the
doctor who examined Bruce's body had failed to detect cyanide.
Curiously, Stella had called the doctor several times to question
his findings that her husband had died a natural death from
A chilling thought now crept into Cusack's
mind. He tried to dismiss it. It persisted. There was the
appalling possibility that Sue Snow was murdered--and many others
could well have been--so Stella could make her husband's death
look like an accident.
The Lie. On November 18, Cusack and Nichols met
Stella Nickell for the first time in an interview at FBI
head-quarters in Seattle. Cusack watched as a darkhaired,
middle-aged woman in a buckskin coat came in. As she sat down, a
bell on her purse jingled lightly.
Cusack wanted Stella to believe this was a
routine interview, so he tossed out questions in a flow of easy
conversation. He went over the details of her husband's death,
where and when she had bought the tainted bottles. Had she ever
bought Algae Destroyer? She told him no. Had she ever bought extra
insurance on her husband? Again, she said no. That lie nudged
Stella one rung higher as a suspect.
Finally Cusack asked if she would take a
polygraph test. She refused, sobbing that she couldn't go through
any more questions.
For several days, Cusack bided his time, hoping
her doubts would wear her down. It was, he explained, his
pebbles-on-the-roof technique. "The suspect gets the impression
we're interviewing everyone they know. They begin to think we know
about every mistake they make. It's like they're almost asleep at
night and there it is again--ping, ping, ping on the roof." Four
days later, Stella called him and agreed to take the test.
During the subsequent polygraph, Cusack and
Nichols watched Stella closely. When Cusack asked if she put
cyanide in Excedrin capsules, she calmly denied it, but her jump
in pulse rate and breathing convinced the agents otherwise.
Of course, believing she did it and proving it
were two different things. The agents knew polygraph data are
normally inadmissible in court. They needed to corner their quarry
and pressure her into a confession.
Cusack switched the machine off. "Stella,
listen to me," he said softly. "Based on your physiological
responses, I am positive you caused Bruce's death." Stella went
white. Then she looked coldly at Cusack and said, "I want to see
Grisly Tale. Cusack realized that if he was
going to crack this case, it would have to be without Stella's
confession. He began phoning witnesses again, asking if there was
anything more they could add.
Six weeks later, friends of Cindy Hamilton,
Stella's 27-year-old daughter, called Cusack. Cindy had defended
her mother when Cusack had questioned her months earlier. Now,
after the polygraph she had begun to have second thoughts. And
when Cusack questioned her this time, a grisly tale unfolded. Her
mother, she said, had talked about killing her stepfather for
years. Stella was bored, but she didn't want a divorce because
she'd lose half the property. Stella had even talked about hiring
a "hit man" to shoot Bruce or run his car off the road. Once, she
tried to poison him with toxic seeds, but they only made him
drowsy. A few months before his death, Cindy said, Stella began
talking about cyanide.
When her mother told her about Bruce's death,
Cindy said, Stella had looked hard at her and said, "I know what
you're thinking, and the answer is no." So Cindy had stifled her
suspicions until the polygraph results revived them.
Cindy talked for nine hours straight. Cusack
tried to remain calm, but his mind was racing. This could bring a
conviction, but Cindy hadn't seen her mother pack cyanide in
capsules or place bottles in stores. There was no smoking gun.
Cindy agreed to testify so long as her mother
was not executed. Cusack assured her that the most severe penalty
in a federal product-tampering conviction was life imprisonment.
But a warning light was blinking in his brain. What if this were
only a mother-daughter feud? Will she flip-flop and deny
everything in court?
One part of Cindy's conversation haunted
Cusack. "I knew my mother was capable of doing this," she had
tear- fully confided. "I just didn't want to believe it." Cusack
now realized the enormity of what Stella had done. She had killed
an unsuspecting victim to make the murder of her husband seem
accidental so she could collect more insurance money. She had even
filed a wrongful-death suit against Bristol-Myers for
"contributing to" her husband's death! Cusack wondered: What if
Sue Snow's daughter, Hayley, also had taken the capsules that
morning? What if the other two bottles had found their way into
people's homes? How many people would Stella Nickell willingly
have killed for an extra $105,000?
By February 1987, with the grand jury now
hearing testimony, the FBI team had shrunk to Cusack the inter-
viewer, Nichols the analyzer and an energetic rookie named
Marshall Stone. What they needed was that last link in the chain
of evidence against Stella Nickell. But most of the leads they
checked out went nowhere.
Learning that Stella was interested in tarot
cards and fortune-telling, they visited dozens of occult shops,
searching for a connection to cyanide. They found nothing. Then
Cusack remembered something Cindy had told him. In the months
before her stepfather's death, her mother had researched cyanide
at libraries. Stone volunteered to canvass the local libraries.
One of the first he visited was in Stella's hometown of Auburn.
"Do you have a library-card holder by the name
of Stella Nickell?" Stone asked the librarian. The woman searched
the library's files and returned with a piece of paper which she
handed to Stone. It was an overdue notice for a book Stella had
borrowed and never returned. Its title: Human Poisoning.
Armed with Stella's card number, Stone combed
the aisles for all the other books Stella had borrowed. When he
opened a volume on toxic plants called Deadly Harvest, he found
her number stamped twice on the checkout slip-- both dates before
He packed the book and the volumes that covered
cyanide from three encyclopedias and sent them to the FBI crime
lab. Fingerprint analysis revealed 84 of Stella's prints in Deadly
Harvest--the biggest concentration on the pages discussing
Stella Nickell pleaded not guilty in a federal
court trial that began in April 1988. It took 31 witnesses to
stitch together a portrait of a woman in an unhappy marriage who
felt financially desperate and saw murder as a solution. The
prosecutor called her an "icy human being without social or moral
The jury found her guilty on May 9. Judge
William Dwyer, citing "crimes of exceptional callousness and
cruelty," sentenced Stella to 99 years, with no parole
consideration for 30 years.
As a result of the case, the FDA tightened its
regulations, requiring more anti-tampering protection for
over-the-counter medicines. Bristol-Myers, the maker of Excedrin,
joined the manufacturers of Tylenol and other drugs in abandoning
two-piece nonprescription capsules, replacing them with one piece
"caplets," thus effectively ending the threat of capsule tampering
by crazed killers.
When he thinks about the case now, Cusack
wonders about the "what ifs." For instance, what if the curious
FBI chemist hadn't detected the tiny specks of algae? Stella
Nickell might have committed the perfect crime. But she didn't.
Plain, dogged persistence nailed her.
"It's the old lesson," says Cusack. "You turn
every stone, leaving nothing to chance. This time, it worked.
Bitter Pill: A Wife On Trial
By David Kohn - CBSNews.com
February 11, 2009
In 1988 in Washington state, Stella Nickell was
convicted of killing her husband Bruce, and Sue Snow, a bank
manager, by putting cyanide in Excedrin capsules. The crime was
chillingly similar to the Chicago Tylenol murders four years
earlier. Seven people died in that case, which was never solved.
That case moved Congress to enact tough
tampering laws. Nickell was the first to be convicted under it.
Now, private detective Al Farr and his partner Paul Ciolino are on
a mission to prove what they both firmly believe: Nickell is
innocent. Farr says that there is no credible evidence against
her. 48 Hours reports on the search.
"I am not guilty," says Nickell. "And I won't
quit fighting until I prove it."
Farr and Ciolino have been traveling the
country without pay, interviewing witnesses and friends, talking
to anyone who may help them. They have a history of helping people
they feel have been unfairly convicted.
Stella Nickell grew up poor in the Pacific
Northwest. At 16, she gave birth to a daughter, Cynthia. In the
next 12 years, there would be a failed marriage and a second
daughter. In early 1974, when she was 32, she met Bruce Nickell.
They were married two years later.
One June evening in 1986, he came home with a
headache and four Excedrins. Nickell says her husband walked out
on the deck to watch the birds, and suddenly collapsed. He was
taken by helicopter to a Seattle hospital. The doctors said it was
emphysema, but Stella says that never made sense, because he
didn't have that disease. Nearly two weeks later, she heard about
Sue Snow. Reports said Snow died after swallowing cyanide-laced
Excedrin. She told police, and doctors realized that Bruce Nickell
had also been poisoned.
Police initially focused on Snow's husband Paul
Webking. But he took a polygraph, passed, and was eliminated as a
suspect. They then looked toward Nickell.
Authorities became suspicious because she told
them she had bought two bottles of Excedrin at different times,
probably in different places. This seemed unlikely, because out of
thousands of bottles checked in the entire region, authorities
found only five with tainted capsules, and Stella had two of them.
Gregg Olsen, whose book "Bitter Almonds"
chronicles the case, says that is why the FBI zeroed in on her.
But why would she bring the poisoning to police attention in the
Detective Mike Dunbar, who worked on the case,
says she wanted insurance money. Bruce's insurance paid an extra
$100,000 if he died by accident, including poisoning.
"I think that she probably killed Bruce and
expected them to find out that he died from cyanide poisoning," he
Investigators in Seattle say her plan was
foiled when Bruce's death was attributed to emphysema - a natural
cause. They say she was desperate to establish an accidental cause
of death. So she put poisoned painkillers in stores, they say,
hoping someone else would die and the tainted capsules would be
With Snow dead, Stella could step forward and
notify police. As the investigation continued, the FBI lab found
an important clue: green crystals mixed in with the cyanide. They
turned out to be algae destroyer, a product used to kill algae in
fish tanks. Stella had an aquarium, but says she never bought
But Tom Noonan, who managed the local fish
store at the time, says she did buy algae destroyer. According to
Olsen, the police theory is that Stella Nickell crushed the algae
tablets in a bowl, and then later, when she mixed the cyanide,
used that same bowl without cleaning it. Noonan claimed she bought
so much algae destroyer, he had to special order it just for her.
Farr and Ciolino say that is not true.
Although investigators were sure they had the
right person, they had very little to take to a jury: No
fingerprints, nor any way to prove that Stella Nickell ever bought
or possessed cyanide.
Then Stella Nickell's daughter, Cindy Hamilton,
began talking to police. Now 27, Hamilton had been in and out of
Stella's life for years. She had a history of abusing drugs. Olsen
says Hamilton and her mother had a combative relationship. She
told the FBI that her mother had talked for years about killing
her husband, and went to the library to research poisonous plants
"I started reaing books to find out what plants
I might have on the property that would be a danger to kids and
pets," Stella says. The FBI found Stella's fingerprints on several
books. Stella says she researched cyanide after her husband died.
A year and half after Bruce Nickell died,
Stella Nickell was arrested and stood trial in federal court.
Hamilton testified. Although the defense challenged her
credibility, the jury believed her and convicted Stella of fatally
poisoning her husband and Sue Snow.
Retracing the case
Cindy Hamilton was paid a $250,000 reward for
her help in the case against her mother. The reward money came
from a drug manufacturer's trade association. During the trial,
the reward was never brought into evidence.
Stella's lawyer said nothing about the reward
because a deal was made. The defense agreed not to cross-examine
Cindy about the reward. In return, the prosecution agreed not to
reveal that Cindy said she came forward when she heard her mother
failed a polygraph.
"My belief is that the polygraph was a ruse to
try and coerce a confession out of her," says Stella's new lawyer,
Carl Colbert. Colbert says that he has never seen the polygraph
graph, although he has asked to. Her first lawyer also asked to
see it, and never did.
The detectives also question how she first
became a suspect. She originally called police and turned over two
bottles of Excedrin. "Why in the world would she have a second
bottle of contaminated capsules just sitting there waiting to hand
over to law enforcement," asks Farr.
The police say Stella told them she bought them
at different times, probably at different stores. Stella denies
this, and says she told them she didn't know where she had bought
the bottles. Stella's friend A.J. Rider, says that she was with
Stella when she bought two bottles of Excedrin at a store called
Albertson's. The government says all required documents were
The detectives discovered an FBI memo that
seems to support Rider's account. It was found among a thousand
pages never turned over to the defense. In these documents, there
are reports about other possible suspects and mysterious
fingerprints on Sue Snow's bottle. Another memo mentions that
Stella's two Excedrin bottles came from one store, Albertsons. The
FBI refused to comment.
Rider was never called to testify. She lived
with the Nickells months before Bruce died. But by the time of the
trial, Rider says, the FBI had convinced her that her friend was
the killer. She refused to help the defense team. A few years
later, though, she had a change of heart. "It all just kind of
dawned on me, wait a minute, this was a whole setup," she says.
Farr and Ciolino talked to other people who
were also rewarded for their role in the case. Stella's neighbor,
Sandy Scott, became a spy for the FBI. She was paid $7,500. She
even searched Stella's home for algae destroyer. She found none,
something the jury never heard. Noonan, the fish store manager,
was paid a $15,000 reward.
Stella is not perfect: She once served four
months in jail for check fraud. When Cindy was 9, Stella was
charged with hitting her with a curtain rod, bruising her legs.
Stella denies abusing her children: "(Hamilton) wasn't feeling
good. She wanted to stay home. There was nothing wrong with her. I
sent her to school; she told the nurse I had beat her that
morning. They arrested me and I was only in jail overnight."
Stella, who was ordered to go to counseling,
says her daugher was jealous of her.
Farr and Ciolino believe that finding Hamilton
is the key to their case. After searching for months, they found
her in Southern California. Over a few weeks, Farr met with her
twice. She said that she didn't testify for the reward.
They are not sure where the dialogue will lead.
"She can sometimes be very, very skillfully evasive," says Farr.
She stands by her testimony that her mother had
talked about killing Bruce, though she never said Stella
confessed. She told Farr that she is not sure her mother is really
On the basis of their new findings, Stella's
legal team filed a request for a new trial. This third attempt to
reopen the case was later denied. Police investigators and the
federal government still firmly believe she is guilty. The
detectives say they simply don't know who the killer is.
"It's entirely possible that the real killer is
walking around somewhere out there," says Farr. "But more
importantly, I know who didn't do it and that's Stella Nickell."
Stella and her husband Bruce Nickell.