Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Dumb Poisoners: A Year-End Appreciation

About a month ago, I read a story about a Florida woman who’d tried to kill her husband by crushing up some of her Trazadone pills and mixing them into his tuna fish sandwich.

Naturally, I was appalled. “What kind of idiot tries to put a bitter medication like Trazadone into a tuna sandwich?” I demanded of my husband. “She had to know he’d taste it right away.”

As he didn’t answer right away, I looked over. He appeared to be sneaking out of the room.

“It didn’t work,” I added reassuringly.

He kept going.

When I first started writing about poisons, I had a certain image of poisoners in mind — creepy, yes, but cool, collected. After all, a poison murder is always premeditated. It’s a colder kind of killing, one that I used to imagine was somehow infused with extra intelligence.

But over the last year, I've come to realize that I might be overrating the poison killer. Not just because of the Trazadone-in-tuna idiocy — and I’ll return to that. Did I mention the SpeedyDry in oatmeal fiasco? Or the window cleaner recipe for brownies? The poisoners of 2012 didn't seem to be carefully planning as much as they seemed to be grabbing up the first bottle lurking in the medicine chest or under the kitchen sink. I've been picking up a pattern of bumbling rather than capability.

And, over all, I’ve realized that’s something to be appreciated. We don’t actually want our would-be killers to be too smart. The dumber and the more easily caught the better. There are earlier, classic examples of this point, such as the 1926 murder trial of Ruth Snyder in New York City. Snyder, and her lover, Judd Gray, killed her husband with poisoned alcohol, chloroform (and also a lead sash weight, and length of picture wire), all with such clumsy obviousness (they didn’t even get rid of the weapons) that the writer Damon Runyon (of Guys and Dolls fame) nicknamed their story, “The Dumbbell-Murder.”

But although there’s mockery in that description, there’s also a clue as to how their story ended. They were caught. They were tried. And in the summary way of 1920s justice, they were executed (but not before Snyder had received more than 100 marriage proposals from men willing to overlook a little thing like murder.)

Of course, that’s a different class of dumbbells.


In early December a disgruntled employee of the Waterbury, Connecticut parks department decided to get revenge on his boss by putting poison in the oatmeal container the supervisor kept in his desk. The employee, William Lampron, didn’t look far — he just scooped up some of the SpeedyDry, a compound used by the department to soak up oily spills on roads.

As he explained to the police, his boss had been making him word too hard. Lampron decided to respond chemically to the demanding supervision. After he’d been treated at the hospital, the boss remembered that the oatmeal had tasted a little off. When he inspected the canister opened he could see the large absorbent granules mixed in with the oats. This evidence came in very handy when the police arrived.

But poisoners tend to have, let’s say, a curious way of seeing the world — and their place in it. When detectives interviewed Lampron, he felt he had cause: “He said he was close to retirement and he should be able to slow down the last few months.” Just as a Michigan college student who sent her roommate to the hospital (again in the first week of December) explained that she poured bleach into the other girl’s tea after they argued over who should wash dirty dishes. Her roommate was “mean” about it, she said.

I’ve written before about bleach poisonings. They remind us that household supplies are the most frequent source of such attacks. They remind us that people sometimes just poison to punish. In November, for instance, a deputy sheriff in Florida was charged with dumping hand sanitizer into a co-worker’s coffee following an argument over vacation days.

They remind us, once again, that the everyday poisoner is vindictive. Sneaky. But not necessarily that smart.

Not that I’m dismissing the dangers of the homicidal poisoner. Police believe that the Australian girl who delivered an October gift of brownies laced with toilet and window cleaning chemicals to some neighbor boys, was trying to do real harm (and might have come so if the treats hadn’t smelled so strongly of ammonia). And there’s strong evidence that the woman who put Trazadone in her husband’s sandwich was hoping for a lethal ending.

On first look, Trazadone, is a lousy homicidal poison. It’s an old-time antidepressant (a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor) that tends to be used most often for insomnia treatment. It’s not particularly toxic. An analysis of some 70 suspected overdose cases found that the primary symptoms were a loss of muscle coordination and drowsiness. Not one person died.

But, as it turns out, this poisoner wasn't looking for a drop-dead effect. The intended victim, Gregory Richards, was an electrician whose job required him to climb up and down ladders. His wife, Beth, was hoping to induce an accident.

She’d made a point of texting him during lunch to make sure he was eating the sandwich. Her plan was undone, in part, by the problem I’d noted to my husband. The sandwich, which contained six crushed Trazadone tablets, was extremely bitter. Richards couldn’t finish it. Still, he did become dizzy enough to slip as he was climbing a ladder. The tumble was minor and at the hospital, doctors picked up on the drug reaction. Still his wife was so impressed with her own cleverness that she bragged to a family member who was horrified enough to call the police.

After her arrest, she refused to tell the police why she’d poisoned her husband. But the Polk County sheriff noted that he did have an insurance policy that paid $250,000 if he was killed on the job. And in this we do see evidence of the classic poisoner at work, plotting out murder. Of course, it always was an iffy kind of plot. The best thing about dumb poisoners is that their victims usually survive — and the plotter usually gets caught.

“I wondered if it would have worked better if she’d put it in something like chili that would hide the taste,” I mused to my husband.

But, for some reason, he’d left the room again.


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