Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Toxicology

Fatal Drugs

Genene Jones
Genene Jones
 

In February 1983, a grand jury was convened to look into 47 suspicious deaths of children at Bexar County Medical Center Hospital that had occurred over a period of four years---the time when Genene Jones had been a nurse there.  A second grand jury organized hearings on the dead children from a clinic where she also had worked.  The body of Chelsea McClellan was exhumed and her tissues tested; her death appeared to have been caused by an injection of the muscle relaxant, succinlycholine.  Jones was questioned by both grand juries and was named by Chelsea's parents in a wrongful death suit. One grand jury indicted Jones on two counts of murder, and several charges of injury to six other children.  Associates testified that Jones would spend long hours on the children's ward and always wanted to hold them after they had died.  She also liked to take them to the morgue.  It became clear to everyone that children were dying in this unit from problems that shouldn't have been fatal.  The need for resuscitation suddenly seemed constant---but only when Jones was around.  In a statistical report presented at the second trial, an investigator stated that children were 25% more likely to have a cardiac arrest when Jones was in charge, and 10% more likely to die. On February 15, Jones was convicted of murder.  Later that year, she was found guilty of injuring another child by injection. 

The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer
The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer
 

Jane Toppan seemed to be a sensitive, intelligent woman who was indispensable to well-to-do families in Boston, Massachusetts during the 1890s.  Harold Schechter in The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer describes how she ingratiated herself as an "angel of mercy," got hired as a private nurse, and went to work on her own secret passion—watching people die from poison.  Far from using this murder weapon as a means to get ahead—the common assumption about female poisoners—she appeared to derive an erotic thrill from her work.     Caught in 1901 after four members of the Alden Davis family had died in quick succession, Toppan was exposed as a killer.  An autopsy indicated lethal doses of morphine and atropine in one of the victims.   Investigators looked into her past, discovering a history of mental instability in Toppan's family and a long list of past patients who had died.  She admitted to her attorney that she had killed 31 people, though people who repeat the 1938 New York Times report of her dark legacy have quoted a victim count up to 100.

Kristen Rossum
Kristen Rossum

As reported in The Reader's Digest and Scientific Sleuthing Review, Kristen Rossum was married but unhappy.  Although her husband of a year and a half, Gregory de Villers, 26, had rescued her from a downward spiral of drug addiction and had married her, she soon found a new love.  Her boss at the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, toxicologist Michael Robertson, 31, indulged in a love affair with Kristen and showed her more romance than did her husband.  She wanted to escape, and she had the means to do so right there in the lab where she and her lover worked.  Using a lethal dose of fentanyl, a powerful pain killer that had not been properly inventoried, she managed to poison her husband and then stage his death as a suicide.  She even added rose petals around his body as a special touch, in tribute to a scene in American Beauty, her favorite movie.  However, suspicions were sufficiently aroused to prevent the body from being cremated, and the rose and the lethal drugs were traced back to Rossum, so as her lover headed back to Australia, she was arrested, tried, and convicted of murder.

Cathy Smith
Cathy Smith
 

To be able to prosecute Cathy Smith for contributing to John Belushi's death in 1982 from a drug overdose, it was necessary to establish a fairly precise time of death.  She had fled to Canada and extraditing her for a trial meant using a number of persuasive factors to indicate that she had to have given Belushi the fatal injection.  Belushi and Smith had been on a four-day drug binge around Los Angeles.  On the night of March 4, Belushi threw a party in his bungalow.  He closed it down at 3 a.m. because he felt cold, and Smith claims she gave him his last injection of cocaine and heroin about half an hour later.  At 6:30, he got up to take a shower.  Around 7:45, she brought him some water as he lay in bed.  She claimed that when she left at 10:15, he was alive. At 12:30, his exercise instructor came in to discover him dead.  Emergency services arrived at 12:35.  Cause of death was difficult to determine, but establishing time of death meant factoring in the drug use, which can throw off the typical patterns.  And there were other complicating variables.  Belushi was heavy, which can slow body temperature cooling.  Cocaine also raises the body temperature, so it could have started out higher than normal.  Nevertheless, that still placed death at 10:30 or an hour thereafter.  That meant that a drug injection would have to have been given around 8:30—at which time Smith was still with Belushi.  She was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. 

 

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