Nobody was ever convicted in the 1982 Chicago Tylenol Murders. But in 1986, when two Seattle-area people died after ingesting Excedrin laced with cyanide, Stella Nickell was nabbed for the copycat crime; one of the victims was her husband. Nearly 30 years later, the case hasn’t gotten any less bizarre.
The tale, chronicled in Gregg Olsen’s pulpy true-crime classic Bitter Almonds: The True Story of Mothers, Daughters, and the Seattle Cyanide Murders, was tabloid-ready from the start. Nickell was “not a madwoman, but a coldly calculating killer,” according to a 1988 People article that also noted her fondness for “bar-hopping and skintight dresses.” She’d lived a hard life, giving birth at 16 to her first child, Cynthia — who she was convicted of abusing in 1969, and who would later become the prosecution’s star witness in her poisoning case.
Bruce Nickell was the 44-year-old’s second husband, and their life together in a Washington State trailer park was “grim,” People wrote.
Her elderly mother was living next door. Cynthia, who’d grown up to be a beautiful redhead, was divorced and temporarily raising her child in Stella’s trailer. Money was always a problem. Bruce, 52, was out of work more often than not and, Cynthia reported, had been getting on Stella’s nerves. For five years, Cynthia says, her mother had been talking about solving her problems by killing her husband.
With Bruce’s $176,000 life insurance benefits in her sights, Stella set her plan — detailed in Cynthia’s testimony, as reported by the New York Times — in motion:
Mrs. Nickell’s daughter, Cindy Hamilton, 28 years old, testified that her mother plotted for several years to kill Mr. Nickell, who was Ms. Hamilton’s stepfather. She said her mother talked about hiring a ‘’hit man,’’ researched library books on poison and inquired about using a lethal dose of cocaine on her husband.
Ms. Hamilton said Mrs. Nickell was bored with her husband and was in severe financial trouble. She told the jury, ‘’Based on what my mother had told me prior to my dad’s death, I believed that she did it.’’
Mrs. Nickell, in two days of testimony on her own behalf, denied killing her husband and said her fingerprints were on books about poison because she wanted to know more about toxic substances after the death of Mr. Nickell.
Though her daughter — with whom she clearly had a contentious relationship (further detailed in the interview clip with Bitter Almonds author Olsen, below) — sealed Stella’s fate in court, her actual capture was due more to her own actions. Bruce did indeed drop dead one 1986 evening, but the cause was initially, incorrectly, chalked up to emphysema.
The payout on his insurance was greatly reduced if he died of natural causes, and Stella was greedy enough to risk drawing the spotlight of suspicion in her direction. First, taking a page from the 1982 Chicago crimes, she tampered with more bottles of Excedrin. This time, however, she returned them to store shelves. Inevitably, there was another death: 40-year-old Susan Snow, a complete stranger.
A 48 Hours episode and related article chronicled what happened next:
Investigators say she was desperate to establish an accidental cause of death. So she put poisoned painkillers in stores, they say, hoping someone else would die and the tainted capsules would be discovered. With Snow dead, Stella could step forward and notify police.
As the investigation continued, the FBI lab found an important clue: green crystals mixed in with the cyanide. They turned out to be algae destroyer, a product used to kill algae in fish tanks. Stella had an aquarium, but says she never bought algae destroyer. But Tom Noonan, who managed the local fish store at the time, says she did buy algae destroyer. According to Olsen, the police theory is that Stella Nickell crushed the algae tablets in a bowl, and then later, when she mixed the cyanide, used that same bowl without cleaning it. Noonan claimed she bought so much algae destroyer, he had to special order it just for her
... Although investigators were sure they had the right person, they had very little to take to a jury: No fingerprints, nor any way to prove that Stella Nickell ever bought or possessed cyanide.
When Stella suggested soon after Snow’s passing that her own husband’s recent demise could have been another (accidental!) Excedrin-related death, tests showed she was right. The FBI found it rather remarkable that she happened to have two bottles of tainted medicine — purchased, she claimed, at different stores on different days — in her possession. (A nationwide recall of Extra-Strength Excedrin soon followed; no other cyanide-infused bottles were found.) Once Cynthia came forward, Stella’s not-so-clever plan collapsed.
While Stella serves her two 90-year-sentences for causing the deaths of Bruce Nickell and Susan Snow (she’ll be eligible for parole in three years), there have been rumblings from a pair of private investigators who believe she’s innocent. But there’s no disputing these facts of the case: two people died, and Stella will always be the first person charged under the Federal Anti-Tampering Act — passed as a direct result of the 1982 Chicago poisonings that inspired her scheme.
Top image: Stella Nickell is taken from the federal courthouse in Seattle May 9, 1988 following her conviction for causing the Excedrin deaths. AP Photo by Gary Stewart.