- Stella Nickell laced painkillers with cyanide, murdering her husband and a random woman, Susan Snow.
- Snow’s daughter, Hayley Klein, told Insider about her years of heartache following the crime.
- Klein is featured in “American Mother,” a book about Nickell published this week.
Hayley Klein was transfixed by the woman who fatally poisoned her mother, Susan Snow. The convicted killer stood before a parole board in 2017, while Klein watched the proceedings on closed-circuit TV.
Stella Nickell, then 75, had been sentenced to 90 years in prison in 1988, after she was found guilty of product tampering. Her husband, Bruce, died after taking cyanide-laced Excedrin tablets in 1986. Snow died a few days later, after also taking Excedrin pills laced with cyanide. Prosecutors said that Nickell had tampered with medication in several stores to cover up her husband’s death.
Nickell never admitted to the crimes, but during her first appeal for early release, she finally took responsibility for murdering Bruce. She said that she acted in self-defense as a victim of domestic violence.
But, Klein told Insider, Nickell didn’t mention her mother. “She never talks about my mom,” Klein said. “It really bothers me. I think, ‘Say her name, lady.’”
A new book, ‘American Mother,’ features interviews with Klein and Nickell’s daughter
Nickell is the subject of a new book, “American Mother: The True Story of a Troubled Family, Motherhood and the Cyanide Murders That Shook the World.” Written by Gregg Olsen, the book includes interviews with Klein and Nickell’s daughter, Cindy Hamilton.
Olsen told Insider that Snow was a random victim who “paid for Stella’s greed with her life.” Nickell poisoned Bruce so she could pocket his life insurance, and Snow died the same way in a foiled effort to cover her tracks, Olsen said.
Klein was 15 when she found her 40-year-old mother lying on the bathroom floor in June 1986. She’d heard a thump and the sound of water running over the sink. “Mom’s eyes were open and her fingers were bent and locked up,” Klein said. “She was having a hard time breathing.” The teen called 911. Snow was airlifted to the hospital, but she was declared brain dead a few hours later.
When her mom’s autopsy results showed she had died of cyanide poisoning, Klein struggled to process the news. “I couldn’t take it in,” she said.
The police searched the family home and found an open bottle of Excedrin, a brand that Snow often used, in the kitchen cabinet. Officers broke open the capsules and found the powdered toxin inside.
They asked the family if Snow had any enemies. Klein told them that her mom, who was a bank manager in Auburn, Washington, was “popular and had a big personality.”
The case made headlines across the world. The media was riveted because of its similarity to the notorious Chicago “Tylenol murders,” less than four years earlier, when seven people died in fall 1982 after taking cyanide-tainted Tylenol pills. The killer in that case has never been caught.
Olsen said that Nickell laced Bruce’s Excedrin with cyanide so that the authorities would think his death was accidental, which would allow her to claim his $100,000 life-insurance policy. “It was a means to an end,” the author said. Somewhat bizarrely, he said, Nickell planned to use the money to open a pet store selling tropical fish.
Olsen said that Nickell told her daughter, Cindy Hamilton, about the scheme, despite their fractious relationship, and how she was inspired by the Tylenol deaths. “She thought, ‘If that murderer got away with it, I can, too,’” Olsen said of Nickell.
The killer wanted to get her husband’s life-insurance payout
Nickell watched Bruce die in agony on June 5, 1986, a few days after buying the cyanide at a chemical-supply company. She’d told the staff that she needed it to kill ants. To Nickell’s frustration, the autopsy failed to pick up on the poison. Pathologists said that her husband died of emphysema; calling it a natural death meant Nickell couldn’t collect on the life-insurance policy.
Nickell hatched another plot within a week. She bought nine more bottles of Excedrin and cut through the protective film with a razor blade. She laced some of the pills with cyanide, just as she’d done before, and placed the bottles on the shelves of random stores in the area. One of the bottles happened to be purchased by Snow.
“Stella was desperate because she murdered her husband and got nothing out of it,” Olsen said.
Nickell took advantage of the panic created by Snow’s death and asked police to consider Bruce’s case as part of their investigation. She told them that she thought that he’d been poisoned, too. A second autopsy proved her right.
But the plot backfired. Detectives later found traces of algaecide — a chemical used to clean fish tanks — in the Excedrin pills. Nickell, who kept tropical fish in a large tank, had crushed the cyanide in the same bowl that she used to turn the algaecide into powder.
Nickell took a lie detector test and failed. Her fate was sealed when Hamilton told the FBI that her mother had repeatedly talked about killing Bruce in different ways. Hamilton went on to testify against Nickell at her trial two years later. Nickell was convicted and sentenced to 90 years in jail.
Klein has struggled to process the random way that her mother became a victim
Klein collected $300,000 in damages, financed by a group of drug companies including Johnson & Johnson. The money was an attempt by the company to limit damages, because scared consumers had boycotted their products.
“The case brought the whole pharmaceutical industry to its knees,” Olsen said. He said that the companies were extra sensitive because the police had found no leads on the Tylenol murders in Illinois.
Klein laments the fact that her mother missed every milestone in her life, like her wedding and the birth of her son, over the past 36 years. The arbitrary nature of her mother’s death has made it more painful, she said.
Klein, who lives with her family in New Mexico, said the loss had taught her “a lot about life.” She added that “as negative as it is, I have chosen to learn from it and not become bitter.”
Klein has watched all three of Nickell’s parole hearings, where she’s petitioned for release on “compassionate grounds.” She said of Nickell, “She has no regard for what she did to other people’s lives — I don’t know why anybody should have any regard for her now.”
Olsen said that Nickell’s crimes have been the focus of a number of TV documentaries and books, including his own. But, the author said, the poisoner has never cared about the attention.
“She didn’t want notoriety,” Olsen said. “All she wanted was a tropical-fish store.”