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Poisoned Painkiller Panic: The Snow-Nickell Cyanide Murders

HistoryLink.org Essay 5643 : Printer-Friendly Format

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 reward.

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 $100,000.

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 Excedrin.

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 in aquariums.

Remarkable Coincidences

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 radio.

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 libraries.

"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 encyclopedias.

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 filed.

Sources:
Gregg Olsen, Bitter Almonds: The True Story of Mothers, Daughters, and the Seattle Cyanide Murders (New York: Warner Books, 1993); "Update 2002" in St. Martin's Press Paperback edition, 2002.


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