Cyanide killings can be baffling

Annie Sweeney / Chicago Tribune /

CHICAGO — It could be weeks before investigators know what, if any, clues were buried with Urooj Khan in Rosehill Cemetery six months ago after the million-dollar lottery winner died of cyanide poisoning.

Police find themselves in largely uncharted territory investigating such a rare method for murder, though Chicago, of course, is home to the nation's most infamous cyanide case — the 1982 Tylenol killings, which remain unsolved.

But in a handful of other cases across the country, detectives and prosecutors have embarked on probes of cyanide homicides that were each intriguing in their own way.

There is the literal made-for-TV movie story of a University of Wisconsin biochemistry major from Park Ridge who killed at least one man she was involved with. A decade ago, a teenager in Baltimore dissolved cyanide into a friend's soda, sending him into a seizure before he died several days later. In Ohio's Cuyahoga County seven years ago, an emergency room doctor added the toxic poison to a calcium pill and nearly got away with the perfect murder of his wife.

“Whoever it is, is a cunning person,” Detective Sgt. Dennis Matejcic, who investigated the Cuyahoga County murder, said of Khan's killer. “To be a poisoner is a diabolical thing. It is a really crafty thing. It's not a fit of anger. It's not a crime where you pull out a gun and shoot someone. You have to plan it. You have to think it out.”

'Winter of Frozen Dreams'

The weapon of choice in a murder is an obvious, early question for detectives. But when the weapon is cyanide, it's not always easy to detect, as was clear in the case of Wisconsin's notorious Barbara Hoffman, whose stunning story was turned into a book and movie, both titled “Winter of Frozen Dreams.”

Hoffman was charged with slaying two clients she met while working as a masseuse. A jury convicted her in only one of the slayings.

The first victim, Harold Berge, was found in 1977 buried in a snow bank and appeared to have been badly beaten, recalled Jim Doyle, the county prosecutor at that time who later was elected governor of Wisconsin.

Detectives were led to Hoffman soon enough because she had taken a life insurance policy out on Berge, said Doyle, now an attorney in private practice.

It was not until the second victim — whom Hoffman also had a life insurance policy on — was found several months later that things got complicated for investigators.

Gerald Davies was found dead in his bathtub, an empty bottle of Valium nearby but no apparent signs of struggle, Doyle said.

“Now we were in trouble,” Doyle said. “We don't have a witness. All we've got is this life insurance policy. We don't have anything that ties her to the body.”

The search for Davies' cause of death was launched.

Cyanide is often not found during initial medical exams for a couple of reasons. The poison is not typically screened for in an initial toxicology test. And though cyanide has a distinct bitter, almondlike scent that can be detected with close contact from a corpse, only about half of the population can smell it.

“Some people cannot smell almonds,” Doyle said. “If we had, we probably would have known right there.”

As a result of a persistent detective — who has since died — the lab techs kept trying to find what could have killed Davies, recalled Kenneth Kempfert, an analyst at the Wisconsin state laboratory at the time.

“He kept coming back,” Kempfert said of Detective Chuck Lulling. “I had already gone through everything I could think of. And I started talking to a lot of people. One of my colleagues said, 'Did you check for cyanide?' He had worked in law enforcement a long, long time. I don't know why he suggested it, but thank God he did.”

Since Hoffman was an honors chemistry student, investigators had assumed that she got her hands on the cyanide in a lab. But they later found a FedEx receipt showing that Davies had ordered the poison from a chemical company, Doyle said.

Doyle said he wasn't certain exactly how the two victims ingested the cyanide.

“These were two very lonely men that met this woman in a massage parlor,” Doyle said. “(She) had them very much under her spell. I think we assumed ... they ate something together. But she was meticulous in how she cleaned up those apartments.”

Hoffman, who is serving a life sentence for Berge's death, has remained silent about the crime all these years.

Murder in the suburbs

Murders were rare in the quiet Cleveland suburb of Highland Heights. And if things had gone as planned, the death of Rosie Essa, a mother of two, in a car crash in 2005 wouldn't have drawn suspicion.

Minutes before she walked out the door of her home that day, Yazeed Essa had given his wife a calcium supplement that was laced with cyanide, said Matejcic, a detective for the suburb. His plan, detectives believed, was for her to seize up from the drug and crash at a high speed, leading authorities to think her fatal injuries were from the wreck.

“That would have been the perfect crime,” Matejcic said. “It would have masked the death.”

Instead, Rosie Essa swerved off the road at only about five miles an hour and later died at a hospital for reasons that were not immediately understandable.

“This woman was 38 years old. There was nothing to suspect,” said Matejcic. “The coroner found no indication of what caused her to die.”

Matejcic and his partner interviewed Yazeed Essa shortly after the death and he was surprisingly forthcoming, sharing with the detectives how he had encouraged his wife to take her calcium pill that morning.

In turn, they asked if they could examine the bottle in case, as in the Tylenol murders, there had been tampering, they told him.

Essa agreed and the detectives seized the bottle. They were right — some of the pills were found to be laced with cyanide, Matejcic said. Medical examiners then screened Rosie Essa's blood and found a lethal dose of cyanide.

But by then, Yazeed Essa had fled. The detectives learned that he was living a double life and had a girlfriend.

Essa remained on the lam for two years before the FBI caught up with him in Cyprus, Matejcic said. He was then held in a Cyprus jail for another two years before he was extradited to the U.S. He was convicted of the murder in 2010 and was sentenced to life in prison.

Matejcic said he and his partner never figured out how Essa obtained the cyanide despite their extensive efforts to do so.

Cyanide — commonly used by jewelers in plating and often found in college laboratories — is easy to buy online, said Matejcic, who did just that as part of the investigation.

“We posed as people in the metal business,” he said. “We had it drop-shipped right to the door.”

The pop can-sized jar cost less than $100.

Matejcic and his partner also took tours of university hospital labs to see how easy it would be for Essa, a doctor, to steal the poison. They investigated a former jewelry business that Essa owned with a brother.

“We looked at these people. We did search warrants on their businesses,” he said. “The thing is, it was kind of like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Matejcic said the murder was solved by old-fashioned detective work. They followed the money to learn that Essa would have lost a bundle in a divorce, and they learned of his girlfriends, he said. And they came to understand, with the help of FBI profilers, that he had the personality for the crime.

“He was a highly intelligent guy,” Matejcic said. “He thought he was smarter than the rest.”

A surprisingly easy act

As Matejcic did, Chicago detectives will likely chase several leads to try to determine how Khan's killer obtained cynanide.

But the tragic killing of Maryland teenager Benjamin Vassiliev, who was poisoned by a friend in love with Vassiliev's girlfriend, proves how easily it can be done.

Ryan Furlough, 19, was convicted in 2004 of slipping the poison into Vassiliev's soda while the two played video games.

Howard County Circuit Judge Timothy McCrone, who prosecuted the case, said investigators were able to solve the homicide after seizing evidence from Furlough's computer that detailed his search for and purchases of cyanide.

Ultimately, Furlough used his mother's credit card to buy the cyanide from a chemical supply company, according to an Associated Press report in 2003. The teen told the company he planned to use the substance for metal plating.

Furlough is serving life in prison for the murder.

Urooj Khan, who owned a dry cleaning business, had already been buried — and his death ruled by natural causes — when authorities realized he had been poisoned.

A relative came forward with suspicions he had been poisoned, leading the Cook County medical examiner's office to run a second blood screen that showed a lethal dose of cyanide. Now authorities hope his exhumation Friday will shed more light on how he ingested the poison.

But simply finding the cyanide does not necessarily make a difference.

In the Tylenol case, the nation's most infamous cyanide poisoning, investigators were able to detect the deadly poison almost immediately, but the murders remain unsolved more than 30 years later.

Seven Chicago-area residents died over a few days in the fall of 1982 after ingesting the cyanide-laced capsules.