Like last week’s case, this week deals with murder by poison. But this time, it happened on the West Coast of the United States in a suburb of Seattle, Washington. There Stella Nickell poisoned two people trying to get her husband’s life insurance money.
Bruce and Stella Nickell
Stella Maudine Stephenson was a native of Colton, Oregon. By age 16 she was pregnant with her first daughter, Cindy Hamilton. She later moved to Southern California where she married and had another daughter. Stella also had more than her share of legal troubles. These included convictions for fraud and forgery and a charge of beating Cindy with a curtain rod.
Stella met Bruce Nickell in 1974. Bruce worked as a heavy equipment operator and had a fondness for alcohol. Bruce’s heavy drinking suited Stella just fine. Later, however, he entered rehab and gave up the bottle. Stella resented Bruce’s newfound sobriety because it deprived her of their visits to bars. Her bar-hopping drastically reduced, Stella began to request more night shifts at her baggage-screener job at SEA-TAC airport. To fill the now empty hours at home, she began keeping a home aquarium.
In 1986, the Nickells lived in Auburn, Washington, a suburb south of Seattle not far from SEA-TAC airport. On June 5, Bruce came home from work with a headache. As Stella told it, he took four extra-strength Excedrin capsules before collapsing minutes later. Rushed to Harborview Medical Center, Bruce did not respond to doctors’ efforts to revive him. He died shortly after arriving. Authorities ruled his death to be from natural causes—emphysema, the attending physicians said.
Another Death in Auburn
Less than a week later, Sue Snow, a 40-year-old bank manager took two extra-strength Excedrin capsules for an early-morning headache. Sue’s husband also took two capsules from the bottle for his arthritis before leaving for work. At 6:30 a.m., Snow’s 15-year-old daughter, Hayley, found her lying on the bathroom floor, unresponsive and with only a faint pulse. Paramedics rushed her to Harborview, but she died without regaining consciousness.
Snow’s suspicious death triggered an autopsy. During the autopsy, an assistant medical examiner noticed the odor of bitter almonds, a tell-tale indicator of cyanide. Tests confirmed that Snow had died from acute cyanide poisoning.
Death by cyanide poisoning was big news in Washington. After all, it had been less than four years since the unsolved Tylenol poisonings in the Chicago area. When another bottle of contaminated Excedrin turned up at a grocery store in Kent, the manufacturer, Bristol-Myers launched an immediate recall of all Excedrin in the Seattle area. The company followed this on June 20 with a recall of all their non-prescription capsule products.
In the face of the publicity blitz, Stella Nickell came forward on June 19. She told authorities that her husband had died suddenly after taking Excedrin. The bottle had the same lot number as the bottle in Sue Snow’s home. Investigators exhumed Bruce Nickell’s body and found evidence of cyanide. They also found cyanide in two bottles of Excedrin capsules Stella turned over to the police.
The FDA quickly ruled out Bristol-Myers, as the source of the cyanide. Investigators concluded they were dealing with product tampering. This, in turn, brought in the FBI. Sue Snow’s husband, Paul Webking, agreed to undergo a polygraph examination and passed. Stella refused, her lawyer saying she was too shaken up. (Note: Polygraph tests are not evidence and failing or refusing to take one is not evidence of guilt).
Stella Nickell Under Suspicion
Gradually suspicion hardened on Stella Nickell. For one thing, authorities found only five contaminated bottles of painkillers in all of King County. Stella had two of them. She claimed to have bought the two bottles at different times in different stores. The odds of her selecting two contaminated bottles by random chance were astronomical.
Other evidence pointed to Stella. The FBI laboratory determined that the contaminated capsules contained small particles of an algicide called Algae Destroyer. Investigators verified that Stella had bought Algae Destroyer from a local aquarium supply store. They speculated she used the same container to crush both the Algae Destroyer and the cyanide without washing it.
Then there was the insurance. Stella had taken out $76,000 of life insurance on Bruce. But the policy would pay an additional $100,000 if he died from accidental causes. Like cyanide poisoning. Examination showed that Bruce’s signatures on at least two of the policies in his name were forgeries.
Enter Cindy Hamilton
Despite a strong circumstantial case, there was no direct proof that Stella Nickell had bought or used cyanide. The clincher came when Stella’s oldest daughter, Cindy Hamilton, contacted police. She told them her mother had often spoken of wanting Bruce dead. She claimed Stella admitted to researching poisons and told her of an unsuccessful attempt to poison Bruce with foxglove.
Records from the Auburn Public Library showed Stella had checked out numerous books on poisoning. The records tended to confirm at least that part of Hamilton’s story.
On December 9, 1987, a federal grand jury indicted Stella Nickell on five counts of product tampering. Police arrested her the same day, and she went on trial in April 1988.
Stella Nickell Convicted
The jury convicted Stella on all counts on May 9, after five days of deliberation. The judge sentenced her to two 90-year terms for tampering with the bottles that caused the deaths of Bruce and Sue Snow. The other three charges each drew a 10-year term. win all terms to run concurrently.
Stella appealed her conviction but none of her appeals succeeded. Her lawyers have also petitioned, unsuccessfully, for a new trial. She continues to maintain her innocence, saying that Cindy lied to get the $300,000 reward money (she received $250,000). She became eligible for parole in 2018 but remains in prison. Her release date is set for July 10, 2040, when she will be almost 97 years old.
The Seattle cyanide poisonings are the subject of several true-crime television episodes and at least one book Gregg Olsen’s Bitter Almonds, published in 2013.
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