Transcript: 184. The Seattle Cyanide Murders | USA

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A dynamic bank manager collapsed in her Auburn, Washington home one morning before work. Sue Snow habitually took Extra-Strength Excedrin, as it relieved her headaches. Paramedics arrived at her home, and she was unconscious on the bathroom floor. Her daughter mentioned the Excedrin, but it’s an over-the-counter drug, and they didn’t suspect it had anything to do with the incident. Sadly, Sue would not live to see another day.

 

As police began their investigation, they learnt about another local resident who passed away the week before. Like Sue Snow, Bruce Nickell had taken Extra-Strength Excedrin shortly before he lost consciousness. In both cases, the patients were airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where they were pronounced dead after many efforts to revive them failed. It was later determined that both patients had died due to cyanide poisoning. The Extra-Strength Excedrin found in the Snow and Nickell homes both contained capsules laced with the deadly poison.

 

With no other link between Sue and Bruce, investigators feared that they were dealing with an act of pharmaceutical terrorism. It was only four years after the unsolved Chicago Tylenol murders that took the lives of seven people. Was there a copycat killer on the loose, or was it the same perpetrator? How many victims would there be this time around, and would anyone be caught and brought to justice before this horrifically familiar crime was repeated?

 

>>Intro Music

On June 5, 1986, Bruce Nickell came home after a long day at his job as a heavy equipment operator. He kissed his wife Stella, then went to the kitchen to grab some Excedrin to relieve a nagging headache. According to his wife, he took four Excedrin Extra-Strength capsules, watched television for a little while, and then walked onto their back patio, because he noticed some hawks flying over their house. 

 

Stella said that this is when she heard her husband call out to her, telling her that he felt like he was going to pass out, after which he collapsed to the ground, unable to talk. Stella called emergency services and told them that he had taken some Excedrin capsules shortly before he collapsed. The paramedics were familiar with the headache capsules, but seeing as it is an over-the-counter drug, they did not think it would have caused Bruce to lose consciousness.

 

When paramedics failed to revive Bruce, they called for a helicopter that airlifted Bruce to Harborview Medical Center. Doctors tried to revive Bruce, but all of their attempts were unsuccessful, and he would never regain consciousness. Bruce’s death was ruled to be from natural causes with emphysema cited as a reason. Stella claimed that this didn’t sit right with her and that it didn’t make sense because to her knowledge, Bruce had never been diagnosed with emphysema. 

 

Almost a week later, on June 11, 1986, Susan Katherine Snow, a 40-year-old mom and bank manager, took two Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules shortly after waking up around 6am. This was Sue’s early morning routine, as she would often wake up with headaches, but also because she counted on the caffeine in the Excedrin to give her a bit of a lift. Her husband, Paul Webking, also took two Excedrin’s for his arthritis and then left for work. 

 

About 15 minutes after Sue had taken her usual two headache capsules, her 15-year-old daughter, Hayley, found her mother unconscious on the bathroom floor with a faint pulse, still breathing. Hayley called a family friend who lived close by, and then called 9-1-1. Paramedics arrived within four minutes but were not able to revive Sue. They asked Hayley if Sue had taken any drugs, and Hayley confirmed that her mother took Excedrin every morning. Paramedics did not think this is what caused Sue’s condition. Still hanging on to life, the unconscious Sue was transported to Harborview Medical Center where she would be pronounced dead by noon that day. 

 

During Sue’s autopsy, Assistant Medical Examiner Janet Miller smelled a scent that she had recognised straight away: it was that of bitter almonds, an odour distinctive to potassium cyanide. The toxicology test revealed that there had been poison in Sue’s blood and her cause of death was ruled as acute cyanide poisoning. 

 

Her husband Paul, who worked as a truck driver, was loading his truck at Safeway for the day’s deliveries when he received the news that his wife of six months was in hospital. His boss offered to drive him to the hospital and recalled that Paul didn’t seem the least bit worried about Sue. He thought she had had a panic attack or something, as he knew she was under a lot of pressure at work.

 

Sue’s twin sister, Sarah Webb, who lived in Denver, Colorado was also informed of her sister’s sudden illness. She was shocked to hear that the vivacious and bubbly Sue was in a coma, fighting for her life. As Sarah and her family was heading out the door to go to the airport, the hospital called to say that Sue had died. Sarah was devastated, and angered that Paul made the decision to take Sue off life support so soon. She felt he could at least have waited for her to get there and say her last goodbyes.

Paul Webking and Sue Snow had been married for less than a year at the time of her death. Her daughter Exa and his son Damon attended the same high school and were close friends. Exa thought Damon’s dad was cute and suggested they introduced their single parents to each other. The teens’ matchmaking efforts paid off in the spring of 1978, and before long Sue and Paul were inseparable. 

 

They were perhaps an unlikely match… Sue was used to dating lawyers, doctors or other high rollers. But still, they clicked, and seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Sue’s twin sister was concerned that Paul had a bad influence on her and felt that she had changed in her way of thinking and talking – it was like she had adapted all of Paul’s views. It was strange to see Sue this way, seeing as she had always been a strong woman and independent thinker.

 

In September of 1985, Paul confessed to Sue that he had slept with his high school girlfriend, Mary, while he was away on a long-haul job in California. Sue was heartbroken and wanted to end things with Paul, but he convinced her that it was a once-only mistake and he would never cheat on her again. Sue was the only woman for him. They stayed together, but from that point forward, there were regular fights and disagreements. Sue suspected that Paul had been having an affair with Mary and that he had not ended the relationship. But Paul assured her that was not the case. So, after dating on and off for eight years, five of which they lived together, the couple got married in Reno on Thanksgiving Day of 1985.

 

Despite the positive step forward in their relationship, things were never the same between Paul and Sue after he cheated on her. Their once-was harmonious home, had become a place of ups and downs. Her friends and family knew about the tension between the couple, but always thought they would be able to work things out. In the end, they really did love each other. 

 

Paul was away in the week leading up to Sue’s death and only returned the night before. Sue’s daughter Hayley recalled they had a barbeque and it was a pleasant evening. There were no fights, and her mom and Paul were in a good place. Still, with Sue being poisoned inside her own home, suspicions immediately turned to Paul.

 

On the day of Sue’s funeral, friends, family and Sue’s colleagues all mulled around Sue and Paul’s home. Her twin, Sarah was distraught after losing her sister and needed a pick-me-up. She headed for the medicine cabinet and chose a painkiller she was familiar with. Both sisters often suffered from headaches and habitually took Excedrin tablets. But the bottle in Sue’s cabinet were capsules. Sarah doesn’t like capsules and jokingly said: ah, this is probably what killed Sue! Then she asked her husband to run to the store and pick up some TABLETS. By an enormous stroke of luck, Sarah did not have any of the capsules that did indeed, kill her sister.  

 

Something about the capsules alerted Sarah, enough to ask Paul why Sue had switched from tablets. He said she had difficulty swallowing pills, and after buying a bottle of capsules by accident one time, decided to change. Sarah had visited Sue and Paul the month before, and both sisters had their tablets at the same time together in the morning. She felt that Sue would have mentioned something if she suddenly developed a difficulty to swallow. Besides, they had discussed the Chicago Tylenol Murders at length when it occurred and agreed that it was safer to avoid taking capsules of any kind.  

 

Investigators searched Sue’s home where they discovered the source of the cyanide – the bottle of Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules. Three other capsules in the bottle were also found to be contaminated with cyanide in toxic quantities, but amazingly, the capsules that Paul had taken that morning had been untainted. 

 

Sue’s sister also saw Paul flush some Excedrin capsules that had been in his truck down the toilet, which convinced her he had killed her sister. And Sarah wasn’t the only one suspecting Paul, police felt strongly that he was guilty. Firstly, he lived in the same home, so he had ample opportunity. As for motive… Their relationship was unravelling. Sue was the one with the bigger income, something that always bothered Paul. He was also jealous of her and didn’t want her to fraternise with other men.

 

On the morning of her death, Paul also didn’t seem shocked to learn that his wife was in hospital. He explained he didn’t realise how serious it was at the time. Sue’s eldest daughter, Exa, told police that Paul’s story about her mum having difficulty to swallow tablets was nonsense. He was the one who suggested they switched to capsules, and Sue just went along with it. 

 

Paul Webking insisted that he did not murder his wife and volunteered to take a polygraph – which he passed. For the moment, he was off the hook. Investigators were puzzled. If Sue’s jealous and aggressive husband did not kill her, who then, would want her dead? They looked into Sue’s background and learnt that she was not always popular at work. She could be flirtatious and didn’t hesitate to turn on the charm to seal the deal on a contract. Sue had worked her way up through the ranks of the bank, in the male dominated environment it was in the eighties. Most of her colleagues alluded to the fact that she used her charm to her advantage if necessary.

 

Before she met Paul, Sue had an affair with a married man, who promised he would leave his wife, but never did. But by that time Sue had already ended her marriage to Connie Snow, the father of her children. Her affair, together with her flirtatious manner did not sit well with many people. She once received an unpleasant note at work, addressed to ‘To the whore of Puget Sound Bank’. Did someone dislike her enough to kill her? Police were able to eliminate the person who wrote the note and it was time to face up to the possibility that Sue’s killer did not target her specifically. It appeared that someone could possibly be trying to replicate the Chicago Tylenol Murders, and the daunting question was: would there be more deaths to come? Were innocent people targeted in an act of pharmaceutical terrorism, yet again?

 

In late September and early October of 1982, seven people, including six adults and one 12-year-old girl, died after consuming Extra-Strength Tylenol that had been contaminated with potassium cyanide. Because the bottles of those who had been poisoned ended up coming from more than one factory, but all of the poisonings were local to Chicago, investigators determined that the tampering had occurred after the products had reached store shelves. 

 

Along with the five bottles that had been contaminated leading to the seven individuals’ deaths, three other bottles were also recovered that had been tampered with. Although the person or people responsible for these deaths have never been identified, the Chicago Tylenol Murders, led to a series of changes in product packaging, such as tamper-resistant seals, as well as making product tampering a federal crime for the first time.  

 

Although many copycats of the Chicago Tylenol Murders appeared almost immediately after those deaths took place leading to many subsequent sicknesses and deaths, it would be six years later that the first individual would be found guilty and convicted under this product tampering law. 

 

The FBI and experts who investigated the Chicago poisonings were called to Seattle to help with the Sue Snow investigation. A bottle with cyanide tainted capsules that was from the same lot as Sue’s, 5H102 / Aug 88, was discovered in a nearby grocery store in Kent, Washington. This caused Bristol-Myers, the manufacturers of Excedrin, to recall all Extra-Strength Excedrin products in the Seattle area. A group of drug companies also joined forces and put together a $300,000 reward for information that would lead to the capture of the responsible individual or individuals. 

 

As publicity about Sue’s death and the tainted Extra-Strength Excedrin’s grew, Stella Nickell heard about it and decided to reach out to police on June 19. She informed them that her husband had also died recently and rather suddenly after he’d taken Excedrin Extra-Strength. She told them that it was also from the same lot as the bottle Sue Snow had. The police officer asked if they had done an autopsy in Bruce’s case, and Stella confirmed that they had, but it was not yet concluded, as they had not been able to determine his cause of death. The strongest theory was emphysema, but Bruce had never been diagnosed with the condition in the all the years she knew him.

 

The hospital lab still had one of Bruce’s blood samples, and the medical examiner was able to retest it for the presence of cyanide. Stella had turned over two bottles of Excedrin that she had in her home, both of which contained tainted capsules. Bruce’s death was not due to natural causes – he was poisoned. As is common in homicide investigations, they began their investigation with the spouse, and like they scrutinised Paul Webking’s marriage to Sue Snow, they had a closer look at Bruce and Stella Nickell.

 

Although Paul Webking later complained about how poorly he was treated by the FBI, his polygraph showed no deception and he was off the hook. Police asked Stella Nickell if she was willing to take a polygraph test too. Stella declined through her lawyer. They told reporters that Stella had been “too shaken up” to be subjected to the polygraph exam. 

 

This, along with the fact that Stella had turned in two separate bottles – that she claimed to have bought at two different times at two different locations – that both happened to contain contaminated capsules, pushed Stella to the top of investigators’ suspect list. But was this 40-something grandmother a cold-blooded killer?

 

Stella Maudine Nickell was born in the logging town of Colton, Oregon on August 7, 1943 to Cora Lee and George Stephenson. Her family didn’t have much and Stella was a small-town girl with humble beginnings. At 16, she was pregnant with her daughter Cindy and decided to raise her as a single mom. Stella and Cindy ended up moving to Southern California, where Stella got married, and had another daughter. 

 

It was in Southern California where Stella started her run-ins with the law. She ended up with a conviction for fraud in 1968, a charge for beating one of her daughters with a curtain rod in 1969, and a conviction of forgery in 1971. She ended up serving 6 months in jail for her fraud charge and being ordered to attend counselling for the abuse charge. 

 

Stella’s first marriage didn’t stand the test of time and eventually the couple divorced. She met Bruce Nickell in 1974 and they got married two years later. When Bruce and Stella met, Bruce was a heavy drinker. It didn’t worry Stella too much because they were both very sociable and outgoing. They often went to bars and restaurants together, where they met friends, and to Stella – they had a perfect, fun life. 

 

However, it reached a point that Bruce decided to enter rehab. At first Stella supported him, and he worked hard to get sober and gave up drinking for good. But as he avoided going to bars and parties, it caused friction between him and Stella. Instead of being proud and supportive of her husband, Stella resented Bruce. Just because he didn’t drink anymore, she didn’t get to go out to bars and drink as frequently as before. 

 

10 years into Stella’s second marriage, she was living in Washington State with her elderly mother as her next-door neighbour. Cindy, her oldest daughter, was divorced and raising her child in Stella’s trailer as well. Bruce had been out of work more often than he was actually working, and it is said that Stella was growing increasingly unhappy. She worked at SeaTac Airport, where she screened passengers for Olympic Security. This was not the life she had signed up for. She found her newly sober husband to be boring without a drink in his hand, her mother wasn’t getting any younger and her daughter was on the same path she was. 

 

Stella, usually the one who took care of family finances and admin, had taken out $76,000 worth of life insurance policies on Bruce. One policy had an additional $100,000 payout if his death was accidental. When investigators learned about this clause in the life insurance policy, it raised a massive red flag. Could this be why Stella Nickell inserted herself into the investigation, hoping to get a bigger insurance pay-out? It didn’t make sense: if she killed him, she actually got away with murder. She had a death certificate stating he died of natural causes. Why else would she draw police attention to her?

 

FBI investigators learnt that Stella was not very supportive of Bruce’s sobriety and that she continued her social life without him. In her early forties, she was still attractive and spontaneous and enjoyed attention from the opposite sex. It was alleged that she cheated on Bruce more than once and that she also had a boyfriend. 

 

Investigators also discovered the couple had serious financial problems. Days before Bruce’s death, Stella wrote a couple of letters, to people she owed money. In the letter to her creditors, she said…  

 

Dear Sirs,

 

I know that I’m tremendously overdue with my payments. There is a good reason for it. I’m having marital problems – and they are about solved. Bruce is no longer involved. I will pay you at least $500 per month.

 

Stella Nickell

 

Using handwriting analysis, the FBI also determined that Bruce’s signature had been forged on at least two of the insurance policies in his name. The walls were closing in on Stella Nickell, but investigators had yet to find concrete evidence to link her to the poisoning. They also had to figure out how Stella came to possess cyanide – was this trailer-park party gal really resourceful enough to have done this?

 

FBI agents visited all chemical supply agents in the greater Seattle area, and found one company who sold to individuals, not only to businesses. People in the know, like jewellers, photography dark room technicians and pest controllers could buy it for as little as $11 a pound, no questions asked. An employee at Emerald City Chemical could not pick anyone out of a photo line-up presented to him, who had been to the front-of-store sales desk. He vaguely recalled a woman who came in and purchased something, she had rings on most of her fingers, but other than that, he could not confirm if the woman was Stella Nickell. He did say that, around the same time he started turning people away, not comfortable about selling dangerous chemicals over the counter.

 

After refusing to take the polygraph, Stella Nickell knew that she was under suspicion and denied killing her husband. She sided with Paul Webking, insisting that police were looking at the wrong people.

 

The 60-capsule bottle of Excedrin from Sue Snow’s kitchen had fifty-six capsules left inside, nine of which contained cyanide. Unlike the Chicago Tylenol Murders, all of the tainted bottles in the Seattle case were from the same lot, so suspicions were initially aimed at the manufacturers of Excedrin. Paul Webking and Stella Nickell both filed wrongful death lawsuits against pharmaceutical company, Bristol-Myers. However, when the FDA had a closer look, it was determined that the plant where lot 5H102 had been packaged, in Morrisville, North Carolina, contained no traces of cyanide that would explain the presence of it in the bottles found in Washington state. 

 

Bristol-Myers had initially recalled all Excedrin capsules in the entire United States, pulling them from store shelves and telling customers not to consume any that they may currently have in their homes. To be safe, however, they eventually ended up recalling all of their capsule products that were non-prescription. A bottle of cyanide-contaminated Extra-Strength Anacin-3 was also discovered at the store where Sue had bought her bottle of contaminated Excedrin. Because this wasn’t a Bristol-Myers product, Washington State ended up placing a 90-day ban into effect on the sale of any non-prescription medication in capsules. 

 

It had now been effectively ruled out that the contamination of the tainted bottles had occurred at the production level, and the FBI began to focus their investigation into possible product tampering being the cause of the poisonings.

 

In testing the capsules from Sue Snow’s home, forensic examiners were intrigued by the additional presence of green crystals. The bottle of capsules taken from the Nickell home had seven capsules, two with cyanide and one with the same green crystals. Each tampered capsule contained a dose, averaging at 700 milligrams of cyanide – four times more than a  lethal dose.

 

Tests revealed that it came from an algae remover, a product readily available from fish and pet stores to kill algae in fish tanks. An observant police officer recalled that he had seen an aquarium in Stella Nickell’s house when he was there to interview her. When asked about the product, however, Stella denied ever purchasing it. It was their strongest lead in the case and investigators were not about to give up. They visited all stores that sold the product named Algae Destroyer in the area, showing Stella Nickell’s photo to shopkeepers, asking if they had sold her the product. And it paid off. Tom Noonan, manager at the local fish store, claimed that Stella had actually purchased so much Algae remover from him that he had to place a special order for her. 

 

It came in small tablets, that had to be crushed before placed in one’s fish tank. Forensic examiners concluded that Stella must have crushed the cyanide in the same bowl as the Algae Destroyer, without cleaning it.

 

With her back against the wall, Stella Nickell agreed to take a polygraph test in November of 1986. And as detectives were hoping – she failed. Of course, a lot can be said about the reliability of polygraph tests, but in the eighties, it was still a highly regarded investigative tool. If nothing else, with Stella failing her lie detector test, investigators felt positive that they were on the right track. They narrowed their focus even further onto her but felt they still did not have enough concrete evidence to prove that Stella had been the individual who had orchestrated the poisonings. 

 

In January 1987, they received the break they so desperately needed. And it came from a surprising source: Stella’s oldest daughter Cindy, came forward and said she had information about her mother. Cindy told detectives that Stella had talked to her – on more than one occasion – about the fact that she wanted Bruce dead, telling her that he was a bore since getting sober and all he wanted to do was sit at home and watch TV. Cindy also claimed that Stella had tried to poison Bruce previously with foxglove, a type of flower that can be toxic upon consumption. She allegedly told Cindy that his only notable symptom to that was lethargy, so she upped the ante, and visited her local library to do some research. Cindy also claimed that, before Bruce’s death Stella was already making plans about what they could do with the insurance money, including opening a tropical fish store. 

 

Police obtained records from the Auburn Public Library that showed Stella Nickell had in fact checked out numerous books about poisons, including Human Poisonings from Native and Cultivated Plants and Deadly Harvest. The first book, Human Poisonings from Native and Cultivated Plants had been marked overdue; Stella had checked it out but never returned it. Forensic examiners were also able to obtain finger and palm prints, matching Stella Nickell’s, from entries about cyanide in three encyclopedias. Stella claimed that she had simply been reading these books, trying to find out what plants could be on her property that could potentially be dangerous to children or pets. She had her granddaughter living in the trailer after all. But no one believed her.

 

Paramedics who responded to Stella’s 911 call stated that she told them he had taken Excedrin before he passed out. She was insistent about it, telling them no less than six times. She said, shaking the bottle near the paramedic’s face:

 

“He took these… THESE before he fell.”

 

Paramedic Chris Merritt also noted that he found Stella’s behaviour peculiar at the time, and assumed she was in shock. He said:

 

“She was calm in a way. She seemed to be more concerned to identify to us what actually happened.”

 

On December 9, 1987, Stella was indicted by a federal grand jury on five counts of product tampering, including two that resulted in the deaths of Sue and Bruce. Police arrested her that same day. Her trial began in April 1988. The main theory going into the trial was that Stella started off simply trying to poison Bruce to gain access to his insurance payout. When his death was ruled to be due to emphysema, a natural cause rather than an accident, it meant that Stella was only going to have access to $76,000 rather than the full $176,000. They believed that this is when she went back and got other bottles, putting tainted capsules in them, then returned them to store shelves. They claimed that she then knew she’d just have to wait for at least one other person to die and it be ruled a poisoning before she could step forward about her concerns regarding Bruce’s death, getting it changed to an accident and therefore having access to the full $176,000. Prosecutors also alleged during Stella’s trial that she was determined not to lose her home if she and Bruce were to get a divorce. 

 

On May 9, 1988, after the jury deliberated for five days, Stella was found guilty on all charges. Stella’s defense team made claims of jury tampering and judicial misconduct, trying to get a mistrial but it was denied. Stella ended up being sentenced to two 99-year terms for the charges relating to the deaths of Bruce and Sue, and three ten-year terms for the other product tampering charges. All of these sentences were to be served concurrently, with the judge also ordering Stella to pay a small fine and to forfeit her remaining assets to the families of her victims. 

 

Stella continued to maintain her innocence after her trial, claiming that Cindy, with whom she had a rocky relationship already, had lied to police about her involvement in the case so she could obtain the $300,000 reward money that the drug companies were offering. Cindy did eventually end up collecting $250,000 of that money. An appeal based on jury tampering and judicial misconduct was made but rejected by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in August 1989. A second appeal was made, beginning in 2001, with the assistance of the Innocence Project and private detectives Al Farr and Paul Ciolino. They requested a new trial based on new evidence they claimed had been discovered that the FBI may have withheld originally from the defense. This appeal was also denied. Stella was the first person that was found guilty of violating the Federal Anti-Tampering Act. 

 

A made-for-TV movie was in the pipeline about the Stella Nickell case in 2000, but it ended up being cancelled before production even began allegedly after strong objections were made by advertisers, including Johnson & Johnson, owner of Tylenol, which had, of course, been subjected to negative press related to the Chicago Tylenol Murders. The film was set to air on USA Network and was supposed to be directed by Jeff Reiner and star Katey Sagal. Gregg Olsen wrote about Stella’s case in his book Bitter Almonds: The True Story of Mothers, Daughters, and the Seattle Cyanide Murders. Stella’s case was also featured on episodes of The New Detectives, Forensic Files, Snapped, and two episodes of Deadly Women. 

 

Stella is currently housed at a female-only, low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California. She was eligible for parole in 2018 at 73 years old, but it doesn’t appear that any parole hearing date was ever set. Her release date is given as July 10, 2040. She will be 96 years old. She had swapped her trailer for a prison cell and has never shown remorse for killing her husband and Sue Snow in an elaborate plot, to line her own pocket. 

 

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