Pick Your Poison

"Pick your poison" may be the old saying, but most poisoning victims don't get to pick their poison--someone else does it for them. Arsenic, cyanide, and strychnine are the things we think of immediately as poisons. Most pesticides are poisonous to humans, as are the materials sold as rat or rodent poisons. Probably the most famous character in history to die from poison was Socrates, who drank tea made from the hemlock plant. This plant, which resembles parsley, contains a variety of highly toxic chemicals. The most potent of these is coniine, a neurotoxin that destroys the functioning of the central nervous system.

The list of potentially poisonous substance is very large. Many poisons act slowly or require a large dose to be lethal. Poisoning cases can be accidental or suicides, while other poisoning cases are clearly homicides. Many poisons are neurotoxins, affecting the nervous system in a variety of ways but generally leading to impairment of lung function and suffocation of the victim. Homicide poisoning is often intended to mimic some medical situation, a heart attack or diabetic coma. This makes determining the cause of death difficult. However, the forensic toxicologist, like any other forensic investigator, has a broad base of knowledge and a wide array of chemical analytical methods available to dissect even the most complex poison cases.

Murder Most Foul

That's how the news media portrayed the murder of Nevada Sate Controller Kathy Augustine by her third husband, Chaz Higgs. Police believed that Higgs gave her a lethal dose of the muscle relaxant succinylcholine. Higgs was the nurse who had cared for Charles Augustine, her second husband, after his stroke. Shortly after Charles's death, Higgs married Kathy Augustine. At the time she died, she was running for State Treasurer. However, Augustine had been impeached by the Nevada Assembly for misuse of state funds. Higgs, who apparently married her because he thought she would have money and power, decided to murder her.

Being a nurse, Higgs had access to a wide array of drugs. The choice of succinylcholine was a good one because it is not normally tested for in toxicology screens. Succinylcholine is a strong muscle relaxant that paralyzes the respiratory muscles. It is normally used in a hospital to allow the insertion of a breathing tube into the throat of a patient who is still conscious. In higher doses it can paralyze the entire breathing apparatus, and the victim slowly suffocates to death. The autopsy showed that Augustine had died of a heart attack. A small needle mark on her buttocks was overlooked in the initial autopsy. However, investigators were not so sure, and when police searched Higgs' house they found succinylcholine and other drugs in his possession. Higgs was arrested and eventually convicted of her murder.

From Russia with Love

In November 2006, ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was fatally poisoned with Polonium-210, a highly radioactive material. He survived for several days and suffered greatly during the time. Areas of the hotel where litvinenko stayed and a sushi restaurant that he frequently visited also showed high levels of radioactivity. He would have to ingest a relatively large amount of Polonium-210 to cause fatal poisoning. The material could have been placed in his food on several occasions. However, Scotland Yard officials are not sure how the radioactive material actually entered his body. It is the first time that a radioactive agent has been used as a poison in the UK.


In 1986, an autopsy performed in Japan by Dr. Ono Yokichi led to no clear cause of death, until a toxicology search revealed small amounts of an alkaloid toxin, aconite. Aconite is a plant indigenous to many parts of the world. All parts of this plant are poisonous, but the root is the most highly toxic. A half tablespoon of a tincture of aconite root placed in a bottle of whisky is enough to kill a very large man. A tincture is an alcohol extract of the material. Placed in a drink, the alcohol goes unnoticed. Aconite has been called "the perfect poison to mask a murder." It can be detected only by sophisticated toxicology analysis using equipment that is not always available to local forensic labs. In some poorer cultures is called the "Queen of Poisons."

Deadly Smoothies

Maryann Neabor of Shamog, NJ, says "she just wanted to make her brother-in-law sick" when she fed him pineapple smoothies laced with antifreeze back in 2004. The jury saw it as aggravated manslaughter. Antifreeze is primarily ethylene glycol, a chemical with a resemblance to sugar which is why it is sweet to the taste. This sweetness allows it to be put into fruit drinks and other foods and go undetected by the person consuming them.

In 1993, Julia Lynn Turner's husband Maurice, a Georgia police officer, died of sudden and undetermined ailment that was decided to be a heart attack. Soon after she moved in with Randy Thompson, a sheriff's deputy and firefighter, and things were fine--for a while. They had two children and then the relationship went on the rocks. In 2001, Randy Thompson took ill and died, also from a suspicious ailment. Both men had large life insurance policies which were to be paid out to Julia Lynn. Both had died of kidney and heart failure, so investigators were suspicious. Forensic investigation suggested the men had been poisoned, but with what? Often a poison is no longer present in the victim's body, because the body metabolizes it. The forensic toxicologist must search for metabolic products of the poison, and in some cases there may be more than one.

When the husband died in 1993, the medical examiner had wondered at the time about the presence of high amounts of calcium oxalate crystals in various tissues from the body. In 2001, the forensic toxicologist found similar results and realized that calcium oxalate forms in the kidneys from oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is a major metabolic product of the metabolism of antifreeze.

But how could this woman get two full grown men, both law enforcement officers, to consume antifreeze? Julia Lynn was a creative poisoner--she laced lemon-lime Gatorade with the antifreeze. The sweet taste and green color were a perfect match. However, Julia Lynn became even more creative, including the antifreeze in lime Jell-O, and even in chicken soup. In May 2004, a jury found Julia Lynn guilty of malice murder in the death of both men.