Stella Nickell: No Bonanza in Murder for Money

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 Nickell about the time of the poisonings
Stella Nickell about the time of the poisonings

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.

Bruce Nickell
Bruce Nickell

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.

Sue Snow
Sue Snow

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.

Investigation

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.

May 9, 1988, U.S. Marshall Merry Moore leads Stella Nickell from the federal courthouse after a jury convicts her on five counts of product tampering.
May 9, 1988, U.S. Marshall Merry Moore leads Stella Nickell from the federal courthouse after a jury convicts her on five counts of product tampering.

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.

Cindy Hamilton

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.

A more recent but undated photo of Stella Nickell
A more recent but undated photo of Stella Nickell

Epilogue

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.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

The Old Crime is New Again newsletter is a monthly email covering a topic that has not appeared in the blog. Don’t miss out! Sign up for the newsletter today.

Major Armstrong: Greed and Obsession Make Murder

From last week’s New York case, we’re back to Britain this week for the case of Major Armstrong. The major, a solicitor, killed his shrewish wife with arsenic and used it to try to eliminate a rival.

Major Armstrong

Herbert Rowse Armstrong was born in Plymouth in 1869. After obtaining a law degree, he began practice in Liverpool. Then in 1906, joined the firm of an elderly solicitor, Edmund Cheese, in the market town of Hay-on-Wye. With his prospects promising, he married his fiancée, Katherine Friend, the next year. The couple had two daughters and a son. Armstrong was increasingly successful as a solicitor and Cheese made him a partner in Cheese & Armstrong. With continued success, he moved his family into a rather grand house called Mayfield in the village of Cusop Dingle. He was popular and active in the social life of Hay-on-Wye and, among other organizations, joined the Volunteer Force.

Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong
Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong

Armstrong was called up to serve when the First World War broke out in 1914, He achieved the rank of major in the Royal Engineers and served for a time in France. After the war, almost everyone called him “Major Armstrong.”

Mrs. Armstrong’s Unfortunate Death

Katherine was the dominant force in the Armstrong marriage. Her attention to etiquette bordered on obsession. As for her husband, she strictly ordered his life and had a habit of humiliating him in public.

Katherine Armstrong
Katherine Armstrong

Katherine had always been nervous with a tendency toward hypochondria. But in 1919, she began to have health problems that her doctor, Dr. Thomas Hincks, diagnosed as “brachial neuritis.” She appeared to recover from this, but a year later both her physical and mental health deteriorated precipitously. Admitted to a private mental asylum in August, she was delusional and had symptoms that included fever, vomiting, and heart murmurs. She improved at the asylum, but after returning home in January 1921, her symptoms came back with a vengeance. She died on February 22, 1921.

Mayfield in Cusop Dingle
Mayfield in Cusop Dingle

Major Armstrong Tries to Poison a Rival

Before the war, Cheese & Armstrong were the most successful solicitors in Hay-on-Wye. After the war, however, a rival firm solicitor, Robert Griffiths, took on a new partner named Oswald Martin. Martin had a keen knowledge of the arcane British tax laws. He used it to set up trusts and other instruments that helped minimize taxes. This was a field that Cheese & Armstrong were not able to compete in. Furthermore, Martin began to poach some of Armstrong’s other business.

Armstrong and Oswald Martin represented opposing parties in the complicated sale of the Velinewydd estate. The sale had become a drawn-out affair, ostensibly because Armstrong was dragging his feet. Martin was threatening to terminate the contract. On October 26, 1921, Armstrong invited Martin to his house, where he served tea and scones. If Martin expected to discuss the sale, he was disappointed. The two men only discussed ordinary things (although Martin could have brought up the sale if he’d wanted to).

Later that night, Martin became violently ill, which his doctor diagnosed as stomach flu. However, Martin’s father-in-law, John Davies, insisted that this was a case of arsenic poisoning. Davies just happened to be the local chemist (druggist) and had sold arsenic to Armstrong. Martin contacted Scotland Yard, who agreed there was cause for suspicion. They advised caution—Major Armstrong was a prominent man in the community after all—and agreed to investigate.

Ten months after her death, Katherine Armstrong was exhumed. The eminent pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury conducted an autopsy and ruled that she had died of a massive dose of arsenic poisoning. Unsurprisingly, Armstrong found himself in the dock charged with murder and attempted murder.

Major Armstrong on Trial

No direct evidence linked Major Armstrong to either his wife’s death or Martin’s alleged poisoning. But there was considerable circumstantial evidence. Over time, the major had purchased quite a bit of arsenic from the chemist Davies. The major said he used the arsenic to kill dandelions. He divided the powdered arsenic into little packets. Then dissolved a packet in water, put the solution in a squirt gun, and blasted away at the weed’s roots. He had one of the packets in his pocket when police arrested him.

Armstrong at his magistrate's hearing
Armstrong at his magistrate’s hearing

Probably the most damning witness against Major Armstrong was the renowned Spilsbury. Once the great man made up his mind, nothing could move him to change it—or his testimony. Armstrong’s barrister, Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, K.C. tried on cross-examination to shake the pathologist but only ended up strengthening his testimony. That left the defense up to Major Armstrong himself, who testified on his own behalf.

Armstrong, a lawyer himself acquitted himself well in the witness box. Despite a somewhat lackluster defense, when he stepped down, courtroom observers thought the odds were tilting toward acquittal. Until, that is, the judge called him back.

Mr. Justice Darling
Mr. Justice Darling

Mr. Justice Darling had a few questions of his own and gave the major a very uncomfortable time in the witness box. By the time the interrogation from the bench ended, so had Armstrong’s chances for acquittal. The jury took less than an hour to find him guilty. Mr. Justice Darling, known as a hanging judge, sentenced Armstrong to death. He was hanged on May 31, 1922 at Hereford Shire Hall, Gloucester, proclaiming his innocence to the end. Armstrong remains the only solicitor to be hanged for murder in England.

Did It Really Happen That Way?

The summary above is the ‘accepted” version of the Hay poisoning case. The major’s guilt was a foregone conclusion for over seventy years. Then in 1995, Martin Beales reexamined the case in Dead Not Buried, later republished as The Hay Poisoner. Beales, a solicitor himself, bought and lived in the Armstrong house, Mayfield. He also worked in the same office at the same desk as the major.

Armstrong's office in Hay-on-Wye at the time Martin Beales worked there (Sam Blacketer)
Armstrong’s office in Hay-on-Wye at the time Martin Beales worked there (Sam Blacketer)

Beales contends the evidence against Major Armstrong was weak and the case largely driven by Oswald Martin’s father-in-law, John Davies. He also cites a weak performance by defense barrister Curtis-Bennett and Mr. Justice Darling’s obvious prejudice. And he reminds his readers that it was common in 1920s Britain for people to use arsenic around the house. Furthermore, he disputes the idea that Martin was taking business from Armstrong and contends it was the reverse.

Beales died of cancer in 2010.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

The Old Crime is New Again newsletter is a monthly email covering a topic that has not appeared in the blog. Don’t miss out! Sign up for the newsletter today.

George Trepal: Murder by Means of a Rare Poison

Last week’s blog underscored the old saw about there being no honor among thieves. This week, our topic is George Trepal, a murderer with a genius IQ.

Problems with the Neighbors

Two families lived next to each other amid the orange groves of the tiny town of Alturas, Florida. In one house, mine worker Parearlyn “Pye” Carr lived with his wife Peggy and their children from previous marriages. Even though they had only been married for a few months, Peggy suspected her husband of having an affair. There was also frequent strife among the children, who were in their teens and early twenties.

Peggy Carr portrait
Peggy Carr

The other family was George Trepal and his wife, Dr. Diana Carr (no relation to Pye). George was a chemist and Diana an orthopedic surgeon who people said dominated George. Both belonged to Mensa, a society for people with high IQ.

George Trepal at the time of his trial in 1991.
George Trepal at the time of his trial in 1991.

You’d think two families living close together with no other neighbors nearby would form a bond but not in this case. The two families argued frequently over things like firecrackers and loud music. It seemed that Diana and Peggy’s stepson, Duane, were frequently at odds. And on one occasion, Peggy and Diana had a ferocious altercation over Duane’s alleged bad behavior.

A Strange Illness — And Death

Peggy Carr worked in a local restaurant. One day her daughter, Sissy, visited her at work. Peggy complained she didn’t feel well, and Sissy urged her to go home. Her youngest son found her lying on a sofa, unable to speak. Her family rushed her to a hospital.

At the hospital, doctors spent three days running tests but couldn’t find anything wrong. They suggested that perhaps Peggy’s symptoms were psychosomatic—all in her head. But her symptoms slowly disappeared in the hospital, so the doctors sent her home. The symptoms returned almost immediately.

Again, Peggy couldn’t speak. She was able to write a note saying, “My feet are killing me.” As they drove Peggy back to the hospital, her son Travis and stepson Duane both started feeling a burning sensation in their own feet. Now doctors suspected poisoning. They thought it might be a metallic substance like arsenic. But when Peggy began to lose her hair, they suspected the poison was thallium.

Peggy slipped into a coma, while doctors put Travis on a respirator. Peggy died in March 1988 after Pye allowed the hospital to take her off life support.

Detectives Find Thallium and Finger George Trepal

Detectives tested the Carr’s well water and dozens, if not hundreds, of items around the house. They found no thallium until they noticed an eight-pack of Coca Cola under the kitchen counter. Four of the bottles were empty and all four contained traces of thallium.

The Carr home
The Carr home

Product tampering is a federal crime, so the FBI was now involved. They found that someone had deliberately opened the bottles in the eight-pack. Since one else in the area developed symptoms of thallium poisoning, investigators concluded that someone had targeted the Carr family.

Naturally, Pye was the initial suspect. But authorities doubted he would poison his own son. Besides, tests showed that Pye himself had consumed thallium. Investigators widened their circle and began to consider the oddball neighbor, George Trepal.

George Trepal was an intelligent but passive man. Even the Carr family thought he was harmless. But George Trepal wasn’t harmless. A self-taught chemist, he had a 1975 conviction for manufacturing methamphetamine for sale. When questioned about the Carrs, he was nervous and complained at length about things that seemed trivial to detectives. Detective Susan Goreck befriended him and got to know him well. He told her he hated people less intelligent than himself and people he couldn’t control. Both traits applied to the Carrs.

The George Trepal house at the time of Peggy Carr's murder
The George Trepal house at the time of Peggy Carr’s murder

George Trepal Arrested and Convicted

Eventually the FBI found traces of thallium in a small bottle in Trepal’s garage. They arrested him and charged him with murder. They also found a room in his house full of BDSM paraphernalia. The supposedly meek Trepal appeared to have a vivid fantasy life.

George Trepal's garage. Inside, investigators found thallium that the jury decided he used to poison Peggy Carr.
George Trepal’s garage. Inside, investigators found thallium that the jury decided he used to poison Peggy Carr.

George Trepal refused a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for life. Instead, he went to trial. A jury found him guilty and, on March 16, 1991, the judge sentenced him to death.

George Trepal prison photo
George Trepal prison photo

Epilogue

Dr. Diana Carr died at age 69 in 2018 from complications following a stroke. George Trepal still sits on Florida’s death row. He maintains his Mensa membership and continues to file appeals, all of which have failed.

Dr. Diana Carr (no relation to Pye Carr)

Detective Susan Goreck and Jeffrey Good wrote a book about the case, Poison Mind.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

The Old Crime is New Again newsletter is a monthly email covering a topic that has not appeared in the blog. Don’t miss out! Sign up for the newsletter today.

Dr. Crippen Murders His Wife — Or Did He?

From last week’s tale of scandal in old Hollywood, we turn this week to a genuine classic of the true crime genre, the case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, dubbed by the press as the “North London cellar murder.”

The Crippens’ Backstory

Despite the very English flavor of this case, Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American. Born in Coldwater, Michigan in 1862. He qualified as a homeopathic physician and established a practice in New York. There he met and married an aspiring opera singer named Corrine “Cora” Turner (born Kunigunde Mackamotski) in 1894.

A well-known photograph of Dr. Crippen
Doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen who was arrested for murder in 1910 while onboard a transatlantic liner the SS Montrose, becoming the first fugitive caught by using wireless telegraphy, he was found guilty and hanged.

In 1897 Dr. Crippen and Cora moved to London where he was a distributor for Dr. Munyon’s homeopathic patent medicines. Cora turned her attention from the operatic stage to the music halls, where she styled herself as Belle Elmore. Promoting Cora’s music hall career cost Dr. Crippen his job at Munyon’s and he took a series of lesser paying jobs.

Crippen's wife, Cora Crippen.  She also used the stage name Belle Elmore
Cora Crippen used the stage name “Belle Elmore” in her efforts to launch a music hall career

By 1910, the Crippens lived at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, a respectable address in the Holloway section of London.  Their marriage couldn’t have been happy. Dr. Crippen was the meek and quiet while Cora was overbearing and flamboyant. She was also unfaithful, taking a series of younger lovers and flaunting them in public. In 1908, Crippen took a mistress himself, Ethel Le Neve (born Ethel Clara Neave), his secretary.

Dr. Crippen and Cora lived here at 39 Hilldrop Crescent.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX/Shutterstock (1135715a)
39, Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, the home of Dr Crippen and Cora in 1910

Cora Disappears

No one saw Cora after a dinner she and the doctor had at their home on January 31, 1910. To friends who inquired, Dr. Crippen replied that Cora had returned to the United States. Later, he added that she had died in America and had been cremated in California. This explanation looked fishy when Ethel moved into the Hilldrop Crescent home and began to wearing Cora’s clothes and jewelry in public.

Prodded by Cora’s friends, Scotland Yard charged Chief Inspector Walter Dew with investigating her disappearance. Dew interviewed Crippen, who confessed that he fabricated the story of Cora returning to America. He was too embarrassed, he said, to tell people that Cora absconded with one of her music hall lovers, Bruce Miller. Dew then briefly searched the house and, finding nothing, accepted Dr. Crippen’s story at face value.

Chief Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard
Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Walter Dew, ca. 1920

Dew planned to write a report on his investigation and close the matter. However, when he went back to clear up a couple of points with Crippen, he learned that the doctor had suddenly left town. His suspicions now aroused, Dew returned to Hilldrop Crescent and searched several more times. On his fourth search, a loose brick in the floor of the coal cellar led him to dig further. There he found a mass of rotting human flesh wrapped in a pair of pajamas.

The Chase is On

Unaware that Dew was about to close the investigation, Crippen and Ethel panicked and fled to the continent. At Antwerp, they engaged passage to Canada on the Canadian Pacific liner S.S. Montrose. On board, with Ethel thinly disguised as a boy, they passed themselves off as Mr. and Master Robinson, father and son.

Despite the attempted disguise, the captain of the Montrose, Henry Kendall, recognized the pair. As the ship passed Land’s End, he sent a message to the ship’s owners using the new Marconi wireless. “Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers” The owners contacted Dew at Scotland Yard.

Now on alert, Inspector Dew boarded the faster SS Laurentic at Liverpool. With wireless updates from Kendall, the papers printed daily updates on the chase. Dew beat Crippen to Canada and, disguising himself as a pilot, he boarded the Montrose. There he arrested the pair of fugitives.

Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve landing at Liverpool after being brought back from Canada
Chief Inspector Dew (in Derby) leads a disguised and handcuffed Crippen off the ship at Liverpool. Ethel is in the large hat at left.

Trial and Conviction

Crippen’s trial at London’s Old Bailey started on October 10, 1910 and lasted four days. Bernard Spilsbury, who would make a name for himself as a brilliant forensic scientist, testified that he found an abdominal scar in the remains. The scar corresponded to a surgical scar Cora was known to have. The defense contended that what Spilsbury found was a fold in the skin, not a scar.

Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve at their remand hearing at the Bow Street Police Court
Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve at their remand hearing at the Bow Street Police Court
(Photograph by Arthur Bennett, 1910)

Home office chemists also testified to the presence of hyoscine (scopolamine) in the remains. This dovetailed with records showing that Crippen bought a large quantity of the drug prior to Cora’s disappearance. The prosecution contended he used it to poison his wife.

Throughout the trial, Dr. Crippen maintained that Ethel knew absolutely nothing of the business and denied that he killed Cora. It was all for naught. Based on the scientific and circumstantial evidence, the jury took just 27 minutes to convict him of murder. Mr. Justice Alverstone donned the black cap and sentenced Crippen to death.

Ethel was tried separately as an accessory and acquitted. She visited Crippen daily at Pentonville Prison up to the day before his execution. British justice being swift in the early twentieth century, he was hanged at 9:00 a.m. on November 23, 1910.

H.M. Prison Pentonville in 2020
H.M. Prison Pentonville in 2020 (Photography by Glyn Baker)

Did Crippen Do It?

The Crown presented a solid case of circumstantial evidence backed by one of the early uses of scientific testimony. But there is still some question as to whether Crippen was guilty. One puzzling question is that having successfully disposed of the head, limbs, and skeleton (they were never found), why bury part of the torso in his own coal cellar? Also, modern forensic science questions Spilsbury’s authoritative declaration that the tissue he examined was a scar rather than a fold in the skin.

In a stunning development in 2007, Dr. David Foran reported that mitochondrial DNA from Cora’s great-nieces did not match the remains. He also found that the flesh sample was male. However, there is room to question the validity of DNA testing on such an old sample.

Probabilities are, based on the evidence and on Crippen’s and Ethel’s behavior, that Dr. Crippen did, indeed poison Cora. Furthermore, it is possible (though not proven) that Ethel was not as innocent as she and Crippen claimed.

Hawley Harvey Crippen at trial
Hawley Harvey Crippen at trial

Epilogue

The Crippen case was significant for the role that wireless messaging played in capturing the fleeing doctor. The daily updates added spice to an already sensational case and aroused immense public interest. It also marks one of the very early uses of forensic science in a murder trial.

Ethel never spoke of the case after Crippen’s execution. She briefly moved to Canada before returning to England, where she married. She had two children who never knew she was the infamous Ethel Le Neve of the Crippen case. Ethel died in 1967 at the age of 84.

Join the Mailing List