SEATTLE -- Stella Nickell poisoned her husband with cyanide-laced Excedrin so she could collect on his life insurance and caused the death of an innocent woman to fake 'the work of a random killer,' a federal prosecutor argued Wednesday.
Nickell, 44, was frustrated and angry at her deteriorating marriage and wanted out, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joanne Maida told jurors in opening arguments in the nation's first prosecution of a product-tampering case involving deaths.
'This case is about a woman who wanted more from life than her marriage would provide,' Maida said. 'This woman, Stella Nickell, had an obsession of several years that culminated in the death of her husband, and a scheme that at least two people would die.'
Defense attorney Thomas Hillier told the seven-woman, five-man jury in U.S. District Court that evidence would show Nickell had cooperated fully with authorities but that her cooperation had been turned against her.
Hillier denied that the Nickell marriage was troubled, and said his client would have been a 'bumbling idiot' to have done what the government claims.
He said Nickell, who sat expressionless during the opening arguments, would take the stand on her own behalf to refute the prosecutor's allegations and testimony by her daughter, Cindy Hamilton.
Hamilton is expected to testify that 'over the last several years preceding her father's death by cyanide, her mother had been doing research in the library, taking notes and asking questions about various means by which a human being can die,' Maida said.
Nickell is charged with lacing five bottles of painkillers -- four of Extra-Strength Excedrin and one of Anacin -- with cyanide that resulted in the deaths of her husband, Bruce Nickell, 52, and Sue Snow, 40, an Auburn bank manager who was unknown to the defendant.
Prosecutors say Nickell, who faces 10 years in prison on each of the five counts if convicted, concocted a plot to kill her husband in order to collect $176,000 in life insurance benefits and end her rocky marriage. Snow, they say, was an innocent victim.
Maida said Nickell put cyanide in the capsules taken by her husband before he collapsed June 6, 1986, and also returned some bottles of tainted painkiller to store shelves in the Auburn area. One of those bottles was purchased by Snow, who collapsed after taking capsules June 11.
'It was essential to make this appear the work of a random killer,' Maida said.
Prosecutors say Nickell brought the contaminated Excedrin bottles to police attention to reopen the inquiry into her husband's death, which originally was attributed to natural causes, and collect additional insurance money from accidental death benefits.
Maida said the defendant repeatedly denied to investigators knowing of the existence of two life insurance policies on her husband taken out prior to his death. The government claims Nickell forged her husband's signature on both policies.
Hillier, however, said the defendant never tried to conceal the policies and that she even told one of the FBI investigators the policy number of one.
Snow's husband, Paul Webking, testified that he had last seen his wife asleep in bed after leaving early for his job as a long-haul truck driver the morning of her death. He said it was her daily habit to get up and take two Excedrin capsules.
'Excedrin has a lot of caffeine,' he said. 'She took Excedrin for caffein instead of drinking coffee.'
Hillier also denied prosecution contentions that Nickell prepared for killing her husband by reading up on poisonous substances, even checking out library books for information. He said she was merely reading about poisonous plants and dangerous compounds to ensure the safety of her grandchild and other small children she occasionally cared for in the couple's rural, mobile home.
Nickell has been held without bail since her arrest last December for allegedly violating the product tampering laws, enacted after seven people died in the Chicago area in 1982 after Tylenol capsules were laced with cyanide.
State prosecutors have not filed murder charges against the woman, saying they will wait for the outcome of the federal court trial.