Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Mysterious Death of Karen Silkwood

Los Alamos

Because her contamination levels were increasing despite the small amount of time inside the lab, the company decided to investigate her home and car. What they found was disturbing. Trace amounts of contamination were found throughout the house, but the kitchen and the bathroom, particularly the toilet, were the hottest. Karen explained she had spilled some of her urine sample but it didn't explain why the bologna in her refrigerator set off the alarms. And her roommates, confusingly, did not set off the same alarms. Later, the lab found that the plutonium inside the bologna was insoluble and wouldn't have passed through to her urine, which suggested that the contamination had another source. Such a scenario would have been conceivable, since the security at Kerr-McGee was notoriously lax—one person was rumored to have taken a pellet to a show-and-tell class at their kid's school. Though some employees suspected that Karen had contaminated herself purposely, the type of plutonium found to have contaminated her would not have been accessible to her since her transfer months earlier.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory
The Los Alamos National Laboratory

After it was determined that the house was hot, a small army of men in protective gear, white hats and overalls, masks and gloves entered the house and stripped it of its contents: clothing, sentimental pictures, the entire fridge, furniture—even scraping the walls—until the house was a shell. The contaminated items were stored in large drums.

Essentially homeless over the next few days, Karen became concerned about the cancer-causing agent that had contaminated her. She went to doctors under the AEC's coverage. They said she should visit specialists in Los Alamos, N.M., and by Saturday, November 10, Silkwood, Stephens and Sherri Ellis, her roommate, were in New Mexico. There, they were all tested using more advanced techniques at the Los Alamos National Laboratory by Dr. George Voelz. Ellis and Stephens were clean, but Silkwood was not. However, the amount detected was not high enough to be alarming, though there were scientists who disagreed with the acceptable thresholds set by the AEC. The three returned to Crescent on November 12.