SEATTLE — A judge on Friday sentenced a suburban Auburn woman to 90 years in prison for putting cyanide in the pain relief medicine that killed her husband and a stranger in the first case under a federal death-by-product-tampering law to reach trial.
Stella Nickell, 44, did not respond when she was sentenced by U.S. District Judge William Dwyer, who recommended that she not be eligible for parole for 30 years.
Prosecutors alleged that Nickell killed her husband in 1986 because she wanted to collect $176,000 in life insurance. They said a woman who also died had no connection with the couple but became a victim of a plot to make Bruce Nickell's death appear to be the work of a random killer.
The deaths set off a nationwide tampering scare and prompted Bristol-Myers Co. to recall its non-prescription Excedrin capsule medicines.
The key witness in Nickell's trial was her daughter, Cindy Hamilton, who testified that her mother discussed ways of killing Bruce Nickell, 52, including copying the 1982 Tylenol poisonings in which seven Chicago-area people died. That case has never been solved.
"It must be said that these are crimes of exceptional callousness and cruelty," Dwyer said. "The jury has found the defendant guilty of appalling crimes."
The judge noted that poisoned capsules were left on store shelves and could easily have fallen into the hands of other people.
Nickell, who was convicted on May 9, received 90-year terms on each of two counts of product tampering resulting in the deaths of her husband and of Susan Katherine Snow, also of Auburn.
She also was sentenced to 10-year terms on each of three tampering counts for poisoning bottles of Extra-Strength Excedrin and Anacin found in the Nickells' home and on store shelves. Dwyer ordered that all terms be served concurrently.
Nickell's attorney, Thomas Hillier, said the verdict and sentence would be appealed, but he expected the process to take at least a year.
Hillier later said his client accepted the sentence stoically. "We were prepared for it. We were prepared for worse," he said.
Prosecutors had requested a 230-year sentence, with a minimum 67 years before parole eligibility, saying entire families could have died because of the tampering.
Bristol-Myers spokesman John Weisberg said the company appreciated efforts by law enforcement agencies that resulted in the conviction and sentence.