Before we discuss this case, let’s talk for just a moment about death by ingesting cyanide; it is a particularly hellish way to die. The poison takes effect rather quickly, within minutes the victim will begin to violently convulse; their mouth will begin to ooze a mixture of vomit, saliva, and/or blood. The victim will gasp for air yet they won’t feel that they’re getting any; it’s much like suffocation as cyanide prevents the body from absorbing oxygen. It’s really a horrific way to go.
In 1982 the Chicago Tylenol Murders occurred. Someone had tampered with several bottles of Tylenol, which left 7 innocent people dead of cyanide poisoning. The culprit was never brought to justice.
Fast forward to 1986. 44 year old Stella Nickell, of Auburn, Washington, had been absolutely miserable with her life. Stella was dirt poor, she lived in a small trailer with her husband, grown daughter Cynthia, and grandchild; Stella’s her mother lived next door. Her husband, Bruce, had a difficult time holding a job, and the bank was ready to repossess her home. The only thing Stella truly enjoyed was the nightlife, the woman loved hitting up the local bars, but Bruce had recently decided to get sober so now she didn’t even have that to look forward to! Stella had been desperate for a solution to all this, and she was cool with making some sacrifices.
In 1985 Stella had taken out a life insurance policy on her husband, Bruce, and named herself beneficiary. The policy was worth an extra 105K if Bruce died from an accident. Stella was now determined to off her husband, but it absolutely must appear accidental – and accidental poisoning was included in the policy. Stella tried a few different things, like killing Bruce with foxglove, but this didn’t work. Eventually she decided to copycat the Tylenol Murders, except using Extra Strength Excedrin instead.
Stella poisoned Bruce’s Excedrin bottle with cyanide. To make it look like someone was copycatting the Tylenol Murders, she purchased a few extra bottles of Excedrin. Stella took them home, mixed them with cyanide, then drove to 3 separate stores where she placed the tampered bottles directly on the shelf for some unsuspecting innocent strangers to purchase. Sure there would be some collateral damage, but who cared? Not Stella, just so long as her own problems were fixed.
On June 5th of 1986, 52 year old Bruce Nickell came home from work with a headache. Stella happily handed her husband 4 Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules, and he collapsed just moments later. To Stella’s great dismay, it is was quickly ruled that Bruce had passed from natural causes; the cause of death was deemed to have been pulmonary emphysema. How frustrating; this meant Stella would only receive $71,000, a whopping 100K less than she was due!
On the morning of June 11th, a 40 year old mother named Susan Snow downed two Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules (they contain caffeine) as part of her morning wake up ritual. Susan’s husband, Paul Webking, took two capsules from the same bottle for his arthritis before he left for work. At 6:30 am, Sue’s 15 year old daughter, Hayley, discovered her mama collapsed on the bathroom floor; Susan was unresponsive with a faint pulse. She passed away that same day.
During Sue’s autopsy, the smell of bitter almonds was detected. Surely we all know what that means; further testing verified that Susan had died of cyanide poisoning.
It did not take investigators long to find the tampered bottle of Excedrin. Sue’s twin sister had nearly taken one for her own headache, but had thankfully noticed that something hadn’t looked right about them; she informed the police instead. Testing did prove that 9 capsules out of those remaining in the 60-count bottle had been laced with cyanide.
It was originally suspected that Sue’s husband, Paul Webking, had been the killer; though the couple had seemed to be very much in love, Sue had thought that maybe her new husband of merely 6 months had been unfaithful. During his interrogation, Paul did admit that it had been his idea to switch to this brand of headache medicine. Paul, determined to prove his innocence, demanded that the FBI conduct a polygraph on him; to everyone’s surprise, the man passed with flying colors.
Soon after this, another tainted bottle was discovered in a grocery store. At this point all Excedrin products were pulled from the shelves and a group of drug companies pitched in to offer a $300,000 reward for the capture of the person responsible. Paul filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers of Excedrin.
Cue Stella Nickell
Seeing this as her golden opportunity, on June 19th Stella summoned police. Playing the part of the grief-stricken widow, Stella explained that her very own husband had suddenly passed away, and that he had taken Excedrin just moments beforehand. Stella handed over the remaining pills and sure enough, testing concluded that there was, in fact, cyanide present in of the widow’s bottle. Blood samples which had been taken from Bruce at autopsy proved that he had not succumbed to emphysema, but to cyanide poisoning.
Stella was beyond thrilled, this was absolutely perfect! Not only could she claim that extra life insurance money, but Stella wasted no time in joining Paul in that wrongful death lawsuit against the makers of Excedrin as well! Stella had gotten greedy, and this greed would be her downfall.
On June 24th, another tampered bottle of Excedrin was discovered. The FBI had been very busy with these bottles; while searching for clues, they found something very strange. It was noticed that the tablets laced with cyanide also contain flecks of an unknown green substance. Further testing concluded the substance to be an algaecide used in home aquariums, sold under the brand name Algae Destroyer.
Stella did something extremely stupid at this point. She contacted police to hand over another bottle of contaminated Excedrin which she’d claimed to have purchased in a completely different store. A total of five contaminated bottles had been found in the entire country, and Stella just so happened to be in possession of two of them? What are the chances!
Now police decided to zero in on Stella as their suspect. During a chat with Bruce’s physician, police found that Stella had been arguing that her husband’s death was an accident well before Sue Snow’s untimely death. Investigators found out about Bruce’s life insurance policy, and the extra payout for accidental death. Upon hearing of Stella’s financial troubles, investigators were informed of a letter which Stella had written to her creditors just before Bruce’s death. In this letter she had stated that there had been a good reason for falling behind: Stella’s husband was no longer with her. But, Stella had written that she’d suddenly come into a large sum of cash and would now be able to make hefty payment to catch up on what was owed.
The case broke open when an investigator remembered seeing an aquarium during a visit to Stella’s home. They were soon able to verify that Stella had not only purchased Algae Destroyer from a local pet store, but an employee remembered ordering the substance specifically at Stella’s request! This killer had mixed the green algae destroyer within the same bowl as the cyanide without bothering to clean the bowl thoroughly between uses.
In November of 1986, Stella failed a polygraph and was promptly placed under arrest. At this point Stella’s adult daughter, Cynthia Hamilton, approached police with some very damning information. Before the murders, her mother had often spoke of killing her husband; she even told police of the prior attempts at taking Bruce’s life. Cynthia also stated that her mother had visited the local library to research affective poisoning methods. So, investigators visited that library and records proved that Stella had, in fact, checked out numerous books about poison; her fingerprints were found on many cyanide-related pages of the multiple books Stella had borrowed.
The fact that Stella researched cyanide before following through with her plan makes it all so much worse, you could even use the word evil to describe her. Again, it’s not a pretty way to go out, and Stella not only decided to inflict this death on not only the man she was supposed to love but complete strangers as well! It’s very fortunate that she didn’t rack up a higher body count.
A jury deliberated for 5 days; ultimately Stella was found guilty of five counts of product tampering, including two which resulted in the deaths of Susan Snow and Bruce Nickell.
This killer was sentenced to 90 years, and the judge ordered Stella to pay a fine and forfeit her remaining assets to the families of her victims. This deadly woman was first eligible for parole in 2018, and thankfully freedom was denied. Stella still swears up and down that she has been wrongly convicted. She claims that her own daughter, Cynthia, lied to police for her own financial gain; Cynthia received $250,000 of the reward money offered to whoever helped solve the murders. It appears that this Mother/daughter relationship has always been tumultuous, Stella was once arrested for beating her little girl with a curtain rod, among other things.