Two El Segundo toddlers found dead in their beds last spring were poisoned by oleander leaves from a neighbor's yard that they picked and ate, coroner's officials said Tuesday.
The case of Alexei and Peter Wiltsey, ages 2 and 3, represents the first confirmed accidental deaths by oleander poisoning in county history, said coroner's spokesman Scott Carrier.
Oleander, which grows in backyards, public parks and along streets throughout California, can cause death in rare cases when a substance called oleandrin is absorbed into the bloodstream, causing abnormal heartbeats and eventually proving toxic to the heart, Carrier said.
Autopsies found no evidence of trauma to either boy and test results showed the presence of oleandrin in the boys' stomachs, urine and bloodstreams, Carrier said.
The results gave little solace to Shirley Wiltsey, who with her husband, Tom, brought the boys to California from a Siberian orphanage in September.
"For me, the biggest consolation is they didn't suffer," she said. "They went to sleep and didn't wake up . . . and now the boys are up in heaven with God."
News of the May 4 deaths panicked some homeowners and school officials, who have flooded county officials and poison control centers with calls asking if they should eradicate oleander from backyards and school playgrounds, officials said.
County officials sought to calm community fears that the thousands of oleander plants in and around Los Angeles pose a public health threat.
"Normal children don't go out and eat oleander," said Dr. Richard Clark, a medical toxicologist and executive director of the California Poison Control Center. And even if they did, Clark added, they would either gag on the bitter plant or vomit it.
"There is not a single other case in the American literature that I know of of people eating oleander leaves and dying," he said.
Los Angeles County botanist Jerry Turney, who helped sheriff's investigators identify poisonous plants growing near the Wiltsey home, agreed.
"I would not expect this to ever happen again," he said. "It's just amazing these kids ate it."
Coroner's officials speculated that the boys might have suffered from pica, a little-known condition that sometimes afflicts malnourished children, causing them to compulsively eat dirt, paint chips or other nonfood substances.
The boys, who were not biological brothers, were small and malnourished when they arrived from Siberia, but their pediatrician found no evidence that the two boys had pica, Wiltsey said.
But she said the neighbor's oleander bush that the boys walked by almost every day on their way to school or to the park must have looked to them "like a big salad."
"They were hungry in Russia," she said. "Once they were here, I couldn't believe how much they could eat. They would polish everything off . . . and if something fell on the floor, they would go right after it. It was a reflex."
The Wiltseys, who have two older girls but always wanted to adopt boys, said that when they found leaf particles in the boys' vomit three days before their deaths, they didn't immediately suspect that they had eaten poisonous plants.
"I wasn't thinking plants," she said of that Monday when the boys ingested the oleander. "If I had known it was oleander, we would have had them to the doctor so fast it would have made your head spin."
The next day, the boys appeared a bit under the weather in the morning. But by the afternoon, they were playing normally.
"You figure it's some sort of flu bug and you think, 'OK, they're getting better,' " she said. "The symptoms of poisoning are vomiting and lethargy, and every child gets that from time to time."
That Wednesday, Shirley Wiltsey said she again found the boys playing with plants, "but they didn't have any in their mouths, and they didn't vomit."
They appeared normal for the rest of the evening. On Thursday morning, when their father went to wake them up, they were cold to the touch.
Both boys had been neglected in Russia and were overcoming language difficulties, but from the moment they arrived, they were happy, Tom Wiltsey said.
"They liked animals and Legos and books and songs," Shirley Wiltsey said. "They'd go to the grocery store and they'd say good morning to everybody. It didn't matter what time of day. They'd say good morning to a car going by, or a plane in the sky or birds."
She said the family is taking strength from their church and from the support of friends and family.
"You assume you're going to see them hit the first home run and go to the prom. You're going to watch them get married. We assume these things, but there's no guarantees," she said.