When a young mother collapsed and died in her bathroom in Auburn, Washington on June 11, 1986, her grieving family was completely at a loss for answers. An autopsy was ordered for 40-year-old Sue Snow, during which the smell of bitter almonds was detected. Toxicology confirmed what the medical examiner’s nose had already found-Snow died from cyanide poisoning.
As a matter of routine, police gathered all pill bottles from Snow’s home. Among them was a bottle of Extra Strength Excedrin, which Snow’s widower told police she had been taking for chronic headaches. The bottle was nearly full, and tests on the remaining capsules confirmed the presence of cyanide.
The news of the tainted Excedrin spread quickly, with many news outlets drawing parallels to the 1982 Tylenol poisonings in Chicago. As a precaution, bottles of Extra Strength Excedrin were pulled off all local store shelves. Authorities found only two cyanide-laced bottles still in the stores.
After Snow’s cause of death was made public, a 42-year-old woman named Stella Nickell contacted police. Her husband Bruce, 52, died six days before Snow-also after taking Extra Strength Excedrin. Nickell told authorities the bottle from which Bruce took the pills was still in her home, and that the lot number matched the one reportedly found on Snow’s bottle. Bruce’s death had already been declared as due to emphysema, but Nickell felt he too had been poisoned by cyanide-laced Excedrin.
Samples of Bruce’s blood, taken during his autopsy, were tested and found to contain cyanide on June 19, 1986. Later that day, police collected the Excedrin bottle Nickell told them about, along with a second bottle. Both contained cyanide-laced pills. The odds of Nickell possessing two poisoned bottles of Excedrin seemed rather low. Police grew even more suspicious when Nickell told them she had purchased the bottles from two separate stores, decreasing the odds of a coincidental purchase even further.
Upon closer examination of the poisoned pills, authorities found green crystals mixed in with the medication inside each capsule. The police lab analyzed the crystals and found that they were a type of algae killer. This was the break police had been waiting for-Nickell had a large fish tank, and therefore likely would need algae killer. An employee at a local pet supply store confirmed that Nickell had purchased green algae-killing tablets, which had to be crushed before putting in the tank. Authorities theorized Nickell had used the same tools to crush both the algae killer and the cyanide, and then put three boxes of the tainted capsules back on store shelves. If strangers died from taking the poisoned Excedrin, police surmised, it would lessen suspicions that Nickell was involved in Bruce’s death.
Nickell not only had the means, but also a motive to kill her husband. Bruce’s life insurance policy paid out to his widow-but only the standard amount. Had Bruce’s death been ruled an accident instead of a natural death due to emphysema, Nickell stood to collect an additional $100,000. Further examination of the life insurance policies, all purchased within the prior year, revealed possible forgery of Bruce’s signature.
Police had evidence and a possible motive pointing to Stella Nickell as the Excedrin poisoner. But could they prove she wanted her husband dead so badly that she would be willing to murder complete strangers at random to escape suspicion?