Stella Nickell was damaged goods. She was raped at the age of 14. By 16, she was pregnant with her daughter Cynthia. Stella wasn’t a model mother. Years later, she would be arrested for beating her daughter with a curtain rod. Stella’s mother was in a contest with Elizabeth Taylor to see who could marry the most men in one lifetime. It was a close race. Taylor, with eight ex- husbands, outdid Stella’s mother by one. To make matters worse, Stella’s brother was murdered before her eyes in her own home, the place where most people expect to feel safe from the world. Alas, for little Stella it was not to be. Certainly the horrible developments in Stella’s life toughened her up to the point where pathological behavior could and did easily develop. There was one bright spot in Stella’s life. She liked poison and was a big fan of cyanide. It was fast-acting, the victim didn’t have enough time to alert anyone to his or her fate and it wasn’t so easy to detect….not unless it was suspected. Only 50% of the population is able to smell cyanide. The scent reminds them of bitter almonds, an unmistakable odour that is impossible to forget. Needless to say, many people have been murdered with cyanide and no one ever figured it out, even today with all of our fancy technology. Bet that makes you feel all warm inside.
One summer day in 1986 in Auburn Washington, Bruce Nickell had a nasty headache. Stella, his loyal wife, brought him four Excedrin. That was the last thing that would ever enter into Nickell’s stomach. Within hours, he dropped dead with severe lung and brain damage, his death ruled by natural causes due to his emphysema. That wouldn’t do. Nickell’s life insurance only paid out if he died accidentally, not naturally. Stella had to come up with another plan to collect on the payments. One week later, Stella would be eternally tied to 40-year-old bank manager Sue Snow who started the day as always: popping two Excedrin capsules. She didn’t have a headache; she liked the buzz. A few hours later, Snow was dead. This was astounding. Snow had always been in excellent health. Paul Webking, Snow’s husband, soon came under suspicion (they always do) for somehow killing his wife. Still, he was a jerk. Snow’s life insurance policy was in his name. She also wrote a basic will leaving him everything. She had a daughter. Why she didn’t include her child in the will is anyone’s guess. Anyhoo.
Right after Snow’s death, Webking bought a new car and within two months, surprise, got a new girlfriend. Police placed him under observation until the Excedrin poisoning was discovered and Webking was off the hook. The Excedrin information hit the headlines. People began dumping Excedrin into their toilets and into the garbage like it was … poisoned. Eventually it was discovered there were five tainted bottles, more than enough to “wipe out an entire family“ per bottle, easily. The dumping of the bottles may or may not have been an over-reaction. Do you remember the Tylenol poisonings? When Tylenol underwent the same nasty PR, I didn’t hesitate to keep popping them even though those murders were much higher numbers than one or two. Meh. Live dangerously, I always say.
When the Excedrin scandal hit, Stella contacted police. They attended her trailer and she dutifully handed over two bottles of Excedrin. She claimed she’d bought them at two different stores. Incredibly, both of Stella’s bottles test positive. Weird. What were the odds that shopping in two separate stores turned up a bottle of poisoned Excedrin? That silly murderess. She was now at the top of the suspect list except for (1) motivation and (2) proof. Usually there are two main reasons why a spouse plans the partner’s demise: one is jealousy, the other is greed. In Stella’s case it was all about the bucks. Funny thing about the life insurance. Whenever a victim takes out life insurance, he always seems to end up dead soon afterward. Not very good PR for life insurance, either. However Stella forged a life insurance policy on Bruce. And like many insurance policies, he was worth more dead from an accident than any other means. And oddly, life insurance companies list murder as accidental death. Accidentally on purpose, I guess. That accounts for Stella contacting police. Oh, Stella. Stupid on so many levels.
Enter Candice DeLong, a talented criminal profiler. According to DeLong, pyschopaths are especially creepy because they blend so well: they marry, raise kids (if they don’t kill them), hold down good jobs, pay a mortgage, all the normal stuff the rest of us do. This is known as the “mask of sanity.” Funny it reminds me of that Vendetta mask I keep seeing lately, except I have a feeling that one would be a dead (pun) giveaway. I tend to believe DeLong’s information about Stella. She was called in to work on the Unabomber case. Cool. Anyhoo. Before the murder wouldn’t you know, Stella’s marriage was a mess. Bruce was a drinker who managed a life of sobriety during their marriage. This irked Stella; she wanted a drinking buddy not a respectable husband. She usually left Bruce at home so she could traipse about among local bars, flirting, drinking, and partying the night away like a teenager. (Well, maybe not a teenager what with that pesky legal age limit and all).
Stella wasn’t stupid enough to simply poison Bruce. She figured tainting a few bottles and replacing them on drugstore shelves around town was the answer. Then other people would croak and she wouldn’t look guilty. Brilliant….in a totally savage way. Investigators needed solid evidence for this one but happily, it wasn’t difficult. Stella had a record at the local library and wouldn’t you know, the silly woman left her fingerprints all over a book of poison, and specifically the chapter on cyanide. But wait. There’s more. Visible specs of algae killer were left on the pages. Algae killer , you say? They were from Stella’s aquarium at home. A pet store employee specifically remembered selling that very product to Stella. That sealed the deal and investigators arrested Stella Nickell on first degree murder charges.
In an effort to prove her innocence, Stella promptly failed a lie detector test about the pills. Worse, her 27-year-old daughter Cynthia Hamilton was easily bribed by
$250,000.00 in police reward money into telling police what she knew….well the apple don’t fall far from the tree. Mama shouldn’t have been so free with that curtain rod. In fact, Cynthia was in and out of her mother’s life in a highly tumultuous relationship. She was also addicted to drugs (but not foxglove or cyanide, I should think). Cynthia revealed that Stella had unsuccessfully tried to poison Bruce with foxglove before she came up with the Excedrin thing. After her confession, the star witness left town and was nowhere to be seen. No matter. In April of 1988 Stella was sentenced to prison for 90 years. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the case is that Stella was so evil and so determined to get what she wanted that she didn’t care how many innocent victims she claimed. That just gives me a sick headache. Excuse me. I have to go pop a couple of Excedrin.