Shirley Allen: Her Obsession with Murder for Money

Last week, I presented the sad case of Tera Smith. Tera was only sixteen when she vanished from Redlands, California. More than twenty years later, her disappearance remains unsolved. This week’s case is that of the many-married Shirley Allen. In 1982, Shirley poisoned her sixth husband with ethylene glycol. She probably poisoned at least two of her previous husbands as well, one fatally.

Shirley Allen

Shirley Allen entered the world as Shirley Elizabeth Goude in 1941 in St. Louis, Missouri. Little information exists about her early life, but she was obviously unlucky in love. She married a total of six times to five different men. Several of her husbands developed health problems shortly after the wedding.

In October 1968, Shirley married her first husband, Joe Sinclair. Eight months later, Shirley tried to get rid of him with rat poison. Sinclair informed authorities, but they did not file any charges. Instead, Sinclair wisely divorced Shirley and got away from her.

Shirley Elizabeth Goude Allen
Shirley Elizabeth Goude Allen

Shirley married for the fifth time in 1977, when she wed John Gregg. The following year, after being married to Shirley for less than twelve months, Gregg collapsed and died. Initially, authorities ruled it a natural death. Shirley had hoped to collect on Gregg’s life insurance. She was furious when she learned he’d recently changed the beneficiary of the policy, leaving her nothing.

Shirley Allen Poisons Husband Number Six

Lloyd Allen married Shirley in 1981, her final spin of the matrimonial wheel. Lloyd’s health soon began a precipitous decline. When he complained that his drinks tasted “off,” Shirley explained she’d added iron supplements “for his health.” Unfortunately for him, he took her at her word. Lloyd Allen died on November 1, 1982, leaving behind a $25,000 life insurance policy.

Lloyd Allen
Lloyd Allen

Whispers about the unnatural nature of Lloyd’s death began to circulate. An autopsy determined Lloyd’s body contained a lethal amount of ethylene glycol. Ethylene glycol is a sweet-tasting, odorless substance. It is the main ingredient in automotive antifreeze and is a deadly poison if ingested. With an autopsy confirming foul play, police arrested Shirly on November 6.

The old Phelps County Courthouse in Rolla, Missouri where Shirley Allen stood trial for poisoning her husband, Lloyd
The old Phelps County Courthouse in Rolla, Missouri where Shirley Allen stood trial for poisoning her husband, Lloyd

Shirley Allen went on trial two years later in Rolla, Missouri. Her two daughters from a previous marriage, Norma Hawkins, 18, and Paula Hawkins, 17, agreed to testify for the prosecution if they didn’t seek the death penalty. On the stand, the girls testified they’d seen Shirley put antifreeze in Lloyd’s drinks. They also said Shirley sent them to buy antifreeze so she could “finish him [Lloyd] off.” And they further testified that their mother sent them to look for tainted Tylenol capsules in the wake of the infamous Chicago Tylenol poisonings.

Epilogue

It took the jury less than three hours and only three votes to convict Shirley Allen of first-degree murder. With the death penalty off the table, the judge sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole for at least 50 years. Shirly died in prison on April 2, 1998. She was 56 or 57 years old (her exact birthdate is uncertain).

Some sources report that another husband, Daniel Null, died mysteriously. Authorities exhumed the body, but an autopsy failed to reveal proof of ethylene glycol poisoning.

The Discovery Channel series Evil Lives Here featured the Shirley Allen case in Episode 11 of Season 5, Poisoned by Love.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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