Ninety-Year Prison Term in Tampering Deaths

By Modeland, Vern | FDA Consumer, October 1988 | Go to article overview

Ninety-Year Prison Term in Tampering Deaths


Modeland, Vern, FDA Consumer


Ninety-Year Prison Term in Tampering Deaths

The first trial of a case of death by product tampering has ended with a 90-year prison sentence for a 44-year-old Washington state woman.

Stella M. Nickell of Auburn, a Seattle suburb, was found guilty of killing her husband, Bruce, on June 5, 1986, and bringing about the death several days later of Susan K. Snow, also of Auburn. U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer said Nickell had committed "crimes of exceptional callousness and cruelty." He sentenced her to two 90-year terms for death by product tampering and to 10-year terms on each of three tampering counts. All terms are to be served concurrently. The judge recommended that Nickell be ineligible for parole for at least 30 years. In addition to levying a $250 minimum fine, the court directed that all of her assets must be used to compensate her victims, particularly Snow's survivors.

Prosecutors maintained that Nickell planned to kill her husband to collect his $176,000 life insurance. She added cyanide to capsules in five bottles of Extra-Strength Excedrin, a nonprescription painkiller, putting some of the bottles into the stock for sale in a neighboring store. Prosecutors claimed she hoped to make it appear her husband died in circumstances similar to the apparently random murder of seven people in Chicago in 1982 who died after taking Tylenol painkiller capsules tainted with cyanide. Snow's death occurred apparently after she purchased one of the bottles of contaminated capsules. The judge noted at the sentencing that placing the cyanide-laced capsules on store shelves could easily have led to even more deaths. "The jury has found the defendant guilty of appalling crimes," the judge said.

A key witness was Nickell's daughter, who testified Nickell had plotted for several years to kill her husband and had discussed various methods, including poisoning, with her.

FDA cooperated with the FBI, state and local officials, and Excedrin's manufacturer, Bristol-Myers, in investigating the Auburn deaths. FDA's Seattle laboratory analyzed 740,460 Excedrin capsules after the product was implicated in the two deaths. No other tainted capsules were discovered. Bristol-Myers first removed all Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules from Seattle-area stores, then initiated a nationwide recall, and later stopped making the product in capsule form.

The Chicago Tylenol tampering case remains unsolved after more than six years. It led to a nationwide product recall, establishment of federal penalties for tampering, and voluntary industry changes in packaging. It also marked the beginning of the end for nonprescription products being sold in two-piece capsules.

FDA recently proposed additional steps for consumer protection from the threat of product tampering. Nonprescription products in two-piece hard gelatin capsules would be required to have a minimum of two tamper-resistant packaging features. (See "Tampering Rule Change Proposed" in the Updates section of the September 1988 FDA Consumer.)

"A consumer's first defense against being harmed by a product that has been tampered with is being aware of the fact the tampering has occurred," said FDA in describing the proposed new rule in the Federal Register, May 5, 1988.

Stormy Weather

On March 15 the ship Moordrecht, registered under the Netherland Antilles flag, docked in the port of Philadelphia. The 600-foot ship, arrived from ports in Korea and Singapore, came through the Panama Canal and battled 80-mile-an-hour winds in the Atlantic Ocean for seven days. While the ship and crew remained intact, the cargo was a different story.

The ship's manifest read like a grocery list, with nearly 600 8-foot by 20-foot and 8-foot by 40-foot metal containers holding a variety of foods, from coffee beans to pineaplle.

Many of the metal containers had broken open during the storm, their contents scattering all over the hold. …

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