Sneaky, silent killers and their poisons of choice

Few murderers deserve medals for their bravery. Poisoners, however, are particularly cowardly.

They do not risk violence. They don’t confront their victims. Instead, they secretly slip something into a drink or smear it on a doorknob. Then they hide in the shadows and wait.

“A Taste for Poison: Eleven Deadly Molecules and the Killers Who Used Them” details how. Author Neil Bradbury is a professor of physiology and biophysics, and his immediate interest is in the harmful substances themselves, primarily killer staples like arsenic, strychnine and cyanide.

How do they work? What antidotes – if any – exist? explains Bradbury. An appendix details how each poison is administered and the lethal dose required. “For educational purposes only,” writes Bradbury.

But it’s the poisoners, not the poisons, that fascinate here.

It’s probably not shocking, given their access to chemicals, how many doctors and scientists turn to poison for murder. It’s a bit surprising, however, how often they get caught. Their intelligence is matched only by their confidence.

“There are two key elements to committing the perfect murder,” notes Bradbury, presenting a case. “Naturally, the intended victim must die, but the murderer must also escape arrest, conviction and imprisonment. Paul Agutter was doomed on both counts.

A lecturer in cell biology at a Scottish university, Agutter, unhappily married, became obsessed with a student. He couldn’t afford to divorce. While he wished his wife dead, Bradbury notes coolly, she “didn’t seem particularly cooperative about dying”.

So, in the summer of 1994, Agutter decided to help her.

Using his cover as a university researcher, he obtained a stockpile of the poisonous chemical atropine. He then spiked bottles of tonic water with small amounts and slipped them onto the shelves of a local market. One bottle, however, received a lethal dose.

This one he brought home and used in an after-work gin and tonic for his wife, Alexandra. His heartless plan? Several strangers would fall very ill, his hated wife would die, and he thought the police would suspect a mad, anonymous terrorist.

But Agutter put maybe six times the lethal dose in his wife’s cocktail. After two awful-tasting sips, she quit drinking and fell seriously ill.

Agutter had planned for this—or so he thought—by picking a day when their family doctor was on vacation. When Agutter left a desperate message on the doctor’s answering machine, he did so while plotting that the doctor would not receive it in time.

What Agutter didn’t know was that doctors arrange to have colleagues tend to their patients when they can’t. The replacement called an ambulance.

When the paramedics arrived, they took the still conscious Alexandra away. Suspecting she was poisoned – she showed her drink – they also took away her unfinished cocktail and that big bottle of tonic water.

Agutter’s ruthless plot sickened a dozen people and his wife survived. When tests proved that his drink came from the only bottle containing a lethal dose, Agutter’s anonymous terrorist excuse crumbled. When a witness said he saw Agutter putting bottles of tonic back on the market shelf, it was all over.

Agutter served seven of a 12-year prison sentence. Then, he returned to teaching – this time, a course in philosophy and medical ethics.

Nurses are also poisoners, though their victims tend to be strangers, making the motives more obscure. Do they do it out of a misplaced urge to kill out of pity? A need to be necessary? Or out of a pre-COVID desire to keep ICUs full? Although the criminals are few, there have been serial killers in their ranks.

No one could explain Charles Cullen of New Jersey, who confessed to killing up to 40 patients and possibly killing as many as 400. He had no particular motive or target.

“The victims had little in common, ranging in age from 21 to 91,” Bradbury writes. “Some were in critical condition, and some were about to be released.”

While their lives shared little, their deaths had two identical factors: A lethal dose of digoxin, a powerful heart drug, coursing through their veins. And, just before he succumbed, a visit from Cullen.

The administrators, however, were reluctant to ask questions, fearing a scandal. It was easier to fire him. Cullen was not arrested until after 16 years – in his eighth hospital – when the families of the victims complained to the county attorney. This led to an investigation and ultimately a confession.

He was sentenced in 2006 to 11 consecutive life sentences. But others were also guilty.

“Whenever a hospital became suspicious of the deaths surrounding Cullen, their primary concern was getting rid of him,” Bradbury writes. “It will never be known how many lives might have been saved if administrators had been more concerned with patient safety than potential lawsuits.”

Although murderous spouses and demented caregivers are well represented in “A Taste for Poison,” there are more exotic villains; Russian spies also fill its pages.

Edwin Carter’s case first baffled doctors in 2006. The Londoner went to hospital with vomiting and diarrhoea. His throat was raw and his white blood cell count was low. Then her hair started falling out.

Eventually, Carter told the doctors the truth: it was Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian defector and former KGB officer, now working with British intelligence. And he suspected that his former comrades had finally caught up with him.

Because some of his symptoms resembled the side effects of chemotherapy, doctors wondered if he was suffering from radiation poisoning. A urinalysis identified the cause: polonium-210, a million times the lethal dose.

He never got over it. Even after death, his body was so contaminated that doctors performing the autopsy wore hazmat suits.

British authorities suspected two visiting Russians, posing as businessmen, who met him at a local hotel and may have slipped something in his drink. A subsequent search of a suspect’s bedroom caused a Geiger counter to disappear from the cards.

Britain said Vladimir Putin’s administration, “including the president himself”, had a motive and formally charged one of the Russians, Andrei Lugavoy, with murder. Back in Russia, the man denied. Putin refused to extradite.

Admittedly, it was a bizarre murder, but unfortunately not unique.

More than a decade later, in 2018, another former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter fell terribly ill in London. Doctors diagnosed poisoning from a nerve agent, Novichok, first developed by the Soviets. Police later discovered that it had been painted on the doorknob of Skripal’s house.

Skripal and his daughter eventually recovered, but the rest of the case was eerily familiar.

British authorities identified the poisoners as two visiting Russians, now back in Moscow. Putin denied everything. “If Russia had attempted to assassinate the double agent and his daughter, they would now be dead!” he boasted. No one has been tried.

The Kremlin’s message to defectors was clear again: you can run, but you can’t hide.

Vicious spies, crazed nurses and mass poisoners, it’s all almost enough to make you wish for the old-fashioned plots of an Agatha Christie novel. At least there, the motives were clear, justice was always done, and even the bad guys were polite.

And the only sign that something was wrong was that faint taste of bitter almonds almost spoiling your cozy cup of Earl Grey.

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