The story you'll often hear about Stella Nickell is not pretty, but its quite extraordinary. After taking 4 Excedrin, her husband collapsed. She called paramedics, but they were unable to save him and he was pronounced dead, presumably from natural causes. From the beginning Stella insisted something must be wrong -- aside from chronic headaches, her husband was a healthy man and there was nothing to suggest why he would die so suddenly. When she saw a news report about a woman dying from Excedrin capsules filled with cyanide, she called the police. They exhumed her husband's body and determined that he too, had been poisoned. Stella handed two bottles of Excedrin over to police -- supposedly bought at two different times from two different stores. It seemed virtually impossible that one woman could have such bad luck, as only five tainted bottles were discovered, and Stella quickly rose to the top of the suspect list. Her subsequent refusal to take a polygraph test only furthered suspicions.
She was eventually tried and promptly convicted, based on a slew of circumstantial evidence. Minuscule amounts of a product called Algae Destroyer were found mixed with the cyanide in the capsules and a local fish store clerk testified that he sold large quantities of this product to Stella. Her fingerprints were all over library books on deadly plants -- many of which were on pages about cyanide. Then there was her daughter, who testified that she had heard her mother repeatedly talk about being "bored" with her husband and wanting to kill him. As for motive, she would receive extra life insurance money if her husband died accidentally, so the prosecution painted a grim picture of a vile woman who wanted to kill her husband simply because she was bored with him, and was so greedy that she was willing to poison another innocent person just for the extra life insurance money.
When initially heard the story of Stella Nickell, my first question was "how in the hell did this woman get cyanide?" Naturally it was where I started my Stella research. Mostly because I wanted to be accurate and needed a way to show her using cyanide in my photographs, but I was also curious. It doesn't seem like the sort of substance one can just pick up at the grocery store.
After hours of research (and a lot of searches that make my internet history even more questionable than it already was) I'm still uncertain as to where the average person would obtain cyanide discreetly. Outside of very specific occupations, it's just not the sort of thing that would ever be readily available, at least in lethal doses anyway. What I did discover, however, is that there is another, even more intriguing version of events surrounding Stella Nickell.
It turns out that the question of how a reportedly uneducated, alcoholic woman living in a single wide trailer was able to obtain cyanide, properly fill at least 5 bottles worth of capsules, and handle it all carefully enough as to not harm herself in the process was never raised during Stella's investigation or trial.
I ended up reading about two private detectives who unsuccessfully fought to get Stella a new trial. Not only did the FBI withhold documents from the defense team, but they paid both Stella's daughter and the fish store clerk for their testimonies, and convinced Stella's friend --who had information that would have helped Stella's defense-- that her life was in danger and she needed to go into hiding. Years later she said "It all just kind of dawned on me, wait a minute, this was a whole setup."
For context, this all occurred only four years after the Chicago Tylenol murders -- which left seven people dead and remains unsolved. So to say that there was a lot of pressure on both the FBI and pharmaceutical companies would be an understatement, and apparently both were praised for the way they handled the case of Stella, especially in comparison to the Tylenol murders. The widespread fear and panic at the time is the only reason I can think of that no one thought to question how and where Stella would obtain cyanide. Then again, it seems like a question that would demand an answer, doesn't it?
The reason for zeroing in on Stella (which happened fairly early into the investigation) was the belief that she had bought two separate bottles of contaminated pills on two separate occasions at two different stores. The odds of that, agents decided, were infinitesimal, and I can't argue with that. The problem, however, is that Stella apparently told police that she might have bought them separately at different stores, but she just couldn't say for certain either way. Her friend though -- the one who went into hiding under FBI instruction -- had been living with Stella at the time and said she was with her when she purchased both bottles at the same store in a two-for-one sale. She was also with Stella and her daughter during the times her daughter said the incriminating conversations about Stella wanting to kill her husband occurred. According to her, Stella never really complained about Bruce. They were happily married, and in hindsight there was no reason to think otherwise. But at the time, she says, the FBI did a very good job of convincing her that Stella was not only guilty, but out to get her as well.
They also paid a neighbor to spy on Stella and search her home for the Algae destroyer. No such product was found in the Nickell home. This fact was concealed from the defense and not mentioned at trial.
Stella worked a low-paying job screening passengers at an airport and lived in a single-wide trailer. According to many reports she was a heavy drinker. From what I've gleaned, cyanide is not something you can just handle casually. If handled incorrectly, Stella could have very easily killed herself in the process of filling the capsules. The only link between Stella and cyanide was a pair of overdue library books on hazardous plants. Her fingerprints were all over the pages on cyanide. "I started reading books to find out what plants I might have on the property that would be a danger to kids and pets," Stella says. The books were checked out before Bruce's death, but were never returned. She says her interest in cyanide arose when she became suspicious about his death.
There are over 1,000 pages of FBI documents that were not shared at trial, and according to the private detectives they indicate concealed evidence and tampering with witnesses.
Also of note: three months after the two deaths, Seattle police investigated a suicide where they found a bag of capsules resembling those of Excedrin and a pound of cyanide.