Stella Maudine Nickell allegedly poisoned Excedrin capsules with lethal cyanide, resulting in the deaths of her husband Bruce and of Susan Chapman Snow. Her May 1988 conviction and prison sentence was the first under federal product tampering laws instituted after the Tylenol murders.
According to Stella Nickell she had a grim life, her daughter Cynthia was divorced and temporarily raising her child in Stella’s trailer. Money was always a problem and her husband Bruce, 52, was out of work. Her daughter Cynthia reported, that Bruce had been getting on Stella’s nerves. For five years, she said, her mother had been talking about solving her problems by killing her husband.
Cynthia testified that her mother set out to arrange an accident. She studied library books on poison and administered a dose of toxic seeds, either foxglove or hemlock, to Bruce. His only notable reaction was lethargy. Having attended a rehabilitation program with Bruce, where she learned that recovering alcoholics are susceptible to other addictive substances, Stella toyed with the idea of killing him with heroin, cocaine or speed, so that the death would look to police like just another accidental overdose.
She allegedly laced her husband’s medicine with cyanide, killing him. Initially, his death was mistakenly ruled as a result of emphysema, meaning the accidental death insurance bonus was not liable to be paid to the widow.
It is said that Nickell’s next step was to plant three other Excedrin bottles (each one contaminated with cyanide) back on store shelves, to make it appear like the work of a serial killer, hoping Bruce’s death would be reclassified as accidental.
On June 11, 1986, Sue Snow took two Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules, fifteen minutes later, her daughter Hayley, then 15, found Sue Snow unconscious on the bathroom floor. By noon she was dead. A few days later, the King County medical examiner announced that she had been poisoned; her Excedrin had been laced with cyanide. Snow’s grieving family was bewildered as they knew of no one who might have wanted her dead, and they could imagine no motive for the crime.
After Snow’s death, police released the batch numbers for the contaminated bottles in an attempt to warn consumers of the danger. Stella Nickell then came forward, stating she had two bottles of the contaminated medicine. However, she was soon suspected of being the source of the tampered pills because she possessed two of the five known bottles. She failed a polygraph test, and Her daughter, Cindy, later testified her mother had talked about killing her father for the insurance money; the daughter later received $250,000 in reward money put up by the drug industry for information that would solve the tampering case. In addition, the police found Nickell’s fingerprints on various library books she borrowed to read about poisons. She was also proven to have forged her husband’s signature on two insurance policies.
In May 1988 a jury convicted Stella Nickell of causing death by product tampering; she was the first person brought to trial and the first convicted under a federal law enacted in 1983. She was sentenced to 90 years in Prison.