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'Now It's Happening to Us' : Proud Town Deals With Fear of Capsule Poisoning

June 28, 1986|BILL CURRY | Times Staff Writer

AUBURN, Wash. — She was well liked and active in her community and, except for frequent headaches, she was in good health, so there was no good reason for Sue Snow, 40, just to collapse and die on the floor of her home on June 11.

The next day, at her autopsy, a technician making an initial incision caught a whisper of the aroma of bitter almonds--the first overt indication of what would become the nation's worst case of cyanide poisonings as the result of product tampering since its first case claimed seven lives in Chicago in 1982.

Two people are dead.

Five bottles of over-the-counter analgesic capsules have been found tainted with cyanide.

Two brand names have been victimized.

But there is no answer yet to the haunting questions: Who? Why? And why here, in a proud little suburban community south of Seattle?

"It's very frightening," says Pauline Walters, 46, who has lived in Auburn since 1952. "It's happened to other people elsewhere, and you always say it's the kind of thing that happens to other people.

"Now it's happening to us."

"The concern is, this may happen in other parts of the nation--but in Washington? It's very scary," says Pete Peterson, the general manager of Johnny's Food Centers. The Johnny's store in neighboring Kent was one of two stores where cyanide-tainted capsules were found after Snow's death.

'It's Purely Local'

"We are assuming one person is responsible," says John Norris, deputy commissioner of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration. "We believe it's purely local . . . that one person did the tampering and it's highly local."

He added: "I've examined the photos (of the packages taken from store shelves) and the tampering is less than sophisticated. A consumer would have readily noticed both the package and the medicine in the package had been tampered with.

"There's even some suggestion in this case that the tampering was so sloppy the person wasn't intending to kill anyone."

Norris noted, however, that authorities do not have the packaging that was involved in the two deaths.

How Events Unfolded

While it was Snow's death that brought the tampering here to light, she was not the first to die here, and events unfolded this way:

--June 5: Bruce Nickell, 52, a state employee who lived just outside of Auburn, collapses at home about 6 p.m. and dies at 8:45 p.m. at Harborview Medical Center. He is an emphysema patient; his death arouses no suspicions.

--June 8 or 9: Sue Snow purchases Extra-Strength Excedrin, although it is not known where. She collapses at about 6:30 a.m. on June 11. Her 14-year-old daughter finds her and summons help, but she dies at Harborview at 12:10 p.m.

--June 12: Snow's autopsy prompts the King County medical examiner to send specimens to a state laboratory in search of cyanide. The laboratory closes for the weekend, June 14 and 15, and it is not until June 16 that Snow's death is ruled a homicide from cyanide poisoning, and Auburn police recover 56 unused Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules from her bottle of 60.

--June 17: A bottle of Extra-Strength Excedrin is retrieved from the Johnny's market in Kent and shows signs of tampering. It is eventually found to contain cyanide.

--June 18: In the wake of consumer alerts, Stella Nickell discovers her husband's Extra-Strength Excedrin is of the same production lot as Snow's. At least one capsule remaining in this bottle of 40 contains cyanide, and a second bottle in their home, with a different lot number, has also been contaminated. Tests reveal the same batch of cyanide killed both Snow and Nickell. The two lived five miles apart.

--June 24: A bottle of Maximum Strength Anacin-3 is found at the North Auburn Pay'n Save and proves to contain cyanide. Jim Nordness, the store's manager, says Snow shopped at the store on occasion. A few blocks away, at another Pay'n Save, Nickell's name is carried on the store's prescription records.

"All the bottles, along with the deaths, have all been in Auburn or immediate Auburn area," notes Robert J. Karnofski, a spokesman for the city Police Department. "There's a lot of community pride here. People are really surprised."

"It's something--I don't care where you live--it's something to be concerned about," Joyce Bodle, 55, said after shopping at the Pay'n Save where Sue Snow once shopped. "The fear I have is someone will pick up on this and put something in the food in grocery stores--and none of us would have any idea.

"You don't know who's out there."

A Sobering Thought

It is a sobering thought for this city of 32,000 people south of Seattle whose population swells to 90,000 during working hours.

Investigators say they have received no notes or phone calls from anyone making threats or claiming responsibility.

Norris, the deputy FDA commissioner, says: "There are three scenarios: suicide, directed homicide and non-directed homicide--reverse shoplifting and a random customer gets injured . . . as is probably the case in Seattle."

The tampering incident here has prompted the state to ban for 90 days the sale of two-piece, non-prescription capsules. And the experience has brought fear of other possibilities.

"I'm so afraid they can get into other things," says Pauline Walters after shopping at the Pay'n Save where Bruce Nickell shopped. "I've seen people unscrew the lid and smell things in the grocery store. It's just a very horrible, horrible frightening thing.

"Some sicko is loose in our community."

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