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Researcher Awaits Fate in 'Mad Scientist' Case : Crime: He was poisoned but does not know whether he received a cancer-causing dose. The director of the research center is charged with attempted murder.

July 14, 1991|SCOTT McCARTNEY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

THE WOODLANDS, Tex. — His nose stuffed up by a sinus problem, Barry van Winkle reached into his oak desk drawer for a bottle of nasal spray, placed it in one nostril, and inhaled.

Instantly, he knew something was terribly wrong.

Pain shot through his face. It felt as if battery acid had been injected into his head. Van Winkle ran across the biotechnology office's blue carpet and flushed his nose out with emergency eyewash as best he could.

He may have saved his life. Or maybe not.

The nose-spray bottle had been filled with a hazardous chemical called beta-propiolactone. Minuscule doses of beta-propiolactone are known to cause cancer in animals. Van Winkle, a biologist, got a full-strength shot of the colorless killer right into his nose. He later noticed the sweet-smelling substance had been placed on his telephone and doorknob.

It may be years before Van Winkle, 46, knows if he will live to a ripe old age or die from cancer caused by beta-propiolactone. He calls his outlook "undetermined."

But one thing seems certain.

Someone had tried to kill him.

The Cryobiology Research Center was exactly the kind of institution this planned community 25 miles north of Houston had hoped to attract. The Woodlands, acres and acres of $200,000 homes nestled among select corporate developments, wanted to foster a biotechnology neighborhood to capitalize on offshoots from Houston's famed Medical Center.

The research center was a laboratory established by the University of Texas Health Science Center for one of its prominent researchers, John Gunnar Linner, the creator of a revolutionary method of conducting research with biological tissues through cryobiology--biology at very low temperatures.

Working in 1982 in the basement of an electrical shop at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Linner, then an obscure cell biologist, scavenged machine parts and came up with a way to rapidly freeze tissues without damaging ice crystals. The technique allowed researchers to use the tissues for extended periods of time and, for the first time, to see and analyze complete cellular structures with electron microscopes.

It became known as the Linner Process, and it was Linner's ticket out of the basement and into the corner office of the research center, in a stylish steel-and-glass suburban office building with immaculate landscaping.

Linner, the center's director, creator and star, looks more like a retired professional football tackle than a successful biologist. At 47, he stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 300 pounds or more.

Neighbors in The Woodlands know him as a friendly sort who frequently walks his sheep dog. Friends say he likes to whip up tasty batches of chili. Another passion is building miniature race cars and airplanes.

Co-workers call him a gentle giant, though some think him a bit eccentric. A few had heard a bizarre claim he made in the lab a time or two that he had poisoned a roommate at Iowa State University by putting a radioactive substance in his underwear.

Macho talk, they thought. Too bizarre to be true.

Not many knew about Linner's extensive gun collection. But some had seen the books he kept on his desk--books on poisoning titled "Silent Death" and "The Poisoner's Handbook."

One woman quit working for Linner when he became enraged after being told he had to draft a memo requesting repairs on a microscope. He pulled a gun from his desk, waved it around and said "This is the only memo I need," according to police reports.

Linner once told the Houston Chronicle that he had alienated other University of Texas researchers with his unorthodox methods.

The gentle giant, it seems, had a temper. And his office was right next to Van Winkle's.

After the April 8 nasal spray incident, Van Winkle took the Afrin bottle to a friend at the county medical examiner's office in Houston. Analysis revealed that it was beta-propiolactone, a dangerous carcinogen used in the making of some plastics or as a sterilizer or disinfectant.

Van Winkle reported what had happened to the University of Texas police because the incident had occurred in a UT laboratory. He also reported who he thought had tried to kill him.

Frustrated at the slow pace of the college police investigation, he called Peter Speers, the Montgomery County district attorney, on April 22.

"When he called me, I thought the same thing everyone else thinks when they hear about this, 'Man, this is strange,' " Speers said.

Speers passed the tip along to David Moore, a sheriff's department detective.

Van Winkle, the lab's director of research and administration, told Moore that he did not think he had any problems with Linner and that they had always gotten along. But he also was adamant that it was Linner who had spiked the bottle.

Linner, Moore learned, was the only one at the lab authorized to order beta-propiolactone. The detective obtained search warrants for Linner's office and home.

"I told my supervisor, 'This one is pretty bizarre,' " he said.

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