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Suspect in Poisoning Try Has Troubled Life

August 26, 1998|JOHN M. GLIONNA and RICHARD WINTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Attempted mass-poisoning suspect Kathryn Schoonover was arrested in Albany, N.Y., four years ago and sent to Capital District Psychiatric Center, where she was treated for about 10 weeks in the summer of 1994, health officials said Tuesday.

Schoonover--a homeless cancer patient living out of her van--was arrested at a Marina del Rey post office Sunday as she allegedly attempted to mail cyanide packets disguised as nutritional supplements to about 100 people nationwide, including numerous police officers and mental health workers.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 17, 1998 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 4 inches; 113 words Type of Material: Correction
Cyanide mailings--A story in the Aug. 26 editions of The Times detailed the life of Kathryn Schoonover, who is suspected of attempting to mail scores of cynaide packets from a Marina del Rey post office. The story quoted a woman who claimed that she and Schoonover had worked together at the Vernon branch of the now-defunct First Interstate Bank in the early 1980s. The woman claimed that Schoonover, who she said managed the branch, exhibited troubled behavior. An attorney for another Kathryn Schoonover advises The Times that his client was an officer at the bank at that time and is not the same Kathryn Schoonover accused in the criminal case. He said his client never exhibited troubled behavior. He said she now goes by a different name and resides in Nevada. The Times regrets the confusion and the error.

As the 50-year-old Schoonover remained jailed without bail Tuesday on suspicion of attempted murder, other details emerged about her apparent long-standing grudge against authority:

* Officials in West Covina--where Schoonover was once detained and confined for psychiatric evaluation--said she challenged politicians at a public meeting and sent a series of angry letters to city officials. The names of some of those officials turned up on a list of people Schoonover reportedly targeted for her poisoned letters.

* In the early 1980s, Schoonover was the manager of a Vernon bank branch and often frightened co-workers with her wild mood swings, a former colleague said.

"One day, Kathy could be the sweetest person and the next day she could kill you with those eyes," she said. "She scared a lot of people at that bank."

* A reporter for an Albany, N.Y., newspaper described a series of letters she received beginning in 1994 after Schoonover was confined at the Albany psychiatric center. In the letters, Schoonover claimed doctors were trying to kill her nonexistent unborn child with overdoses of medication. The packets--packaged to look like samples that are often mailed by health food companies--were destined for people on what Schoonover labeled "hit lists," according to investigators. When a sheriff's deputy confronted her at the Marina del Rey post office, she described herself as an independent saleswoman and said, "We do chemical experiments," authorities said Tuesday. Later, Schoonover told investigators the substance was substitute salt she intended to use in producing a cable television show about science.

Federal authorities are preparing to charge Schoonover, who is expected to appear in federal court today.

Included on the hit lists were West Covina Councilman Ben Wong, former Councilwoman Nancy Manners, and several police officers.

Manners said Schoonover accused the West Covina police of stealing her baby after her arrest in January 1997 outside a West Covina motel. "It was all made up," she said. "She was a very disturbed lady."

Linda Guevera, a former employee at the now-defunct Vernon branch of First Interstate Bank, said she worked under Schoonover in the early 1980s when the attempted-poisoning suspect was branch manager there.

Guevera described Schoonover as "an incredibly lonely 37-year-old" who often talked about her live-in relationship with a former bank security guard in his mid-60s.

In hindsight, Guevera said, Schoonover's personality seemed similar to that of convicted Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski--brilliant but obsessed with detail and tragically troubled by anger at authority.

"She hated the [local] Police Department," recalled Guevera, who said Schoonover worked at the bank about five years. "The city of Vernon had their accounts at the bank. She constantly harassed them because she thought she was above everybody else. She was definitely a time bomb ready to blow."

The incident that led to Schoonover's hospitalization in a New York mental facility in 1994 reportedly involved a hitchhiking attempt.

Carol DeMare, a reporter for the Albany Times-Union, said Schoonover mailed her a series of letters in which she said she was arrested after police found her standing in the middle of the New York State Thruway, trying to hitch a ride to Boston. "She was going to the Harvard graduation exercises," DeMare recalled. "She claimed to be a college professor."

DeMare said she received several additional letters--and even a detailed diary--from Schoonover in which the woman described her treatment by psychiatric center officials."She was dismayed that no action was taken against these medical people and the state trooper who arrested her, all of whom she said had wronged her," DeMare said.

Kathleen Elbrecht, a supervising nurse at the Albany psychiatric center, told FBI agents she had several run-ins with Schoonover, whom she described as "a very difficult patient," according to documents filed by authorities Tuesday.

This spring, Elbrecht received at her home a letter that contained what she told investigators was "a professionally done vitamin supplement brochure," the documents said. She said she dipped her finger to taste a "white, clumpy crystalline powdery substance" that came with the brochure and immediately fell ill with a severe headache.

Elbrecht, whose name was included on Schoonover's list, later called the supplement company to complain and was told they had not made any mailings to her area.

Since February, Schoonover has been an outpatient at County-USC Medical Center. But a court document did not specify whether she was being treated for emotional illness or for the cancer from which she reportedly suffers.

*

Times staff writer David Rosenzweig contributed to this report.

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