Bitter Pill

Stella Nickell has spent more than a decade in prison for poisoning her husband. Now some top sleuths are trying to prove her innocence. 

June 4, 2001

(CBS) Thirteen years ago, in Washington state, Stella Nickell was convicted of killing her husband Bruce, and Sue Snow, a bank manager, by putting cyanide in Excedrin capsules. The crime was chillingly similar to the Chicago Tylenol murders four years earlier. Seven people died in that case, which was never solved. 

That case moved Congress to enact tough tampering laws. Nickell was the first to be convicted. Now, 13 years later, private detective Al Farr and his partner Paul Ciolino are on a mission to prove what they both firmly believe: Nickell is innocent. Farr says that there is no credible evidence against her. 48 Hours reports on the search. 

"I am not guilty," says Nickell. "And I won't quit fighting until I prove it." 

For 19 months, Farr and Ciolino have been traveling the country without pay, interviewing witnesses and friends, talking to anyone who may help them re-open this case. They have a history of helping people they feel have been unfairly convicted. 

Stella Nickell grew up poor in the Pacific Northwest. At 16, she gave birth to a daughter, Cynthia. In the next 12 years, there would be a failed marriage and a second daughter. In early 1974, when she was 32, she met Bruce Nickell. They were married two years later. 

One June evening in 1986, he came home with a headache and four Excedrins. Nickell says her husband walked out on the deck to watch the birds, and suddenly collapsed. He was taken by helicopter to a Seattle hospital. The doctors said it was emphysema, but Stella says that never made sense, because he didn’t have that disease. Nearly two weeks later, she heard about Sue Snow. Reports said Snow died after swallowing cyanide-laced Excedrin. She told police, and doctors realized that Bruce Nickell had also been poisoned. 

Police initially focused on Snow’s husband Paul Webking. But he took a polygraph, passed, and was eliminated as a suspect. They then looked toward Nickell. 

Authorities became suspicious because she told them she had bought two bottles of Excedrin at different times, probably in different places. This seemed unlikely, because out of thousands of bottles checked in the entire region, authorities found only five with tainted capsules, and Stella had two of them. 

Gregg Olsen, whose book "Bitter Almonds" chronicles the case, says that is why the FBI zeroed in on her. But why would she bring the poisoning to police attention in the first place? 

Detective Mike Dunbar, who worked on the case, says she wanted insurance money. Bruce's insurance paid an extra hundred thousand dollars if he died by accident, including poisoning. 

"I think that she probably killed Bruce and expected them to find out that he died from cyanide poisoning," he says. 

Investigators in Seattle say her plan was foiled when Bruce's death was attributed to emphysema - a natural cause. They say she was desperate to establish an accidental cause of death. So she put poisoned painkillers in stores, they say, hoping someone else would die and the tainted capsules would be discovered. 

With Snow dead, Stella could step forward and notify police. As the investigation continued, the FBI lab found an important clue: green crystals mixed in with the cyanide. They turned out to be algae destroyer, a product used to kill algae in fish tanks. Stella had an aquarium, but says she never bought algae destroyer. 

But Tom Noonan, manager of the local fish store, says she did buy algae destroyer. According to Olsen, the police theory is that Stella Nickell crushed the algae tablets in a bowl, and then later, when she mixed the cyanide, used that same bowl without cleaning it. Noonan claimed she bought so much algae destroyer, he had to special order it just for her. Farr and Ciolino say that is not true. 

Although investigators were sure they had the right person, they had very little to take to a jury: No fingerprints, nor any way to prove that Stella Nickell ever bought or possessed cyanide. 

Then Stella Nickell's daughter, Cindy Hamilton, began talking to police. Now 27, Hamilton had been in and out of Stella's life for years. She had a history of abusing drugs. Olsen says Hamilton and her mother had a combative relationship. She told the FBI that her mother had talked for years about killing her husband, and went to the library to research poisonous plants and cyanide. 

"I started reading books to find out what plants I might have on the property that would be a danger to kids and pets," Stella says. The FBI found Stella's fingerprints on several books. Stella says she researched cyanide after her husband died. 

A year and half after Bruce Nickell died, Stella Nickell was arrested and stood trial in federal court. Hamilton testified. Although the defense challenged her credibility, the jury believed her and convicted Stella of fatally poisoning her husband and Sue Snow. 

Cindy Hamilton was paid a $250,000 reward for her help in the case against her mother. The reward money came from a drug manufacturer's trade association. During the trial, the reward was never brought into evidence. 

Stella’s lawyer said nothing about the reward because a deal was made. The defense agreed not to cross-examine Cindy about the reward. In return, the prosecution agreed not to reveal that Cindy said she came forward when she heard her mother failed a polygraph. 

"My belief is that the polygraph was a ruse to try and coerce a confession out of her," says Stella's new lawyer, Carl Colbert. Colbert says that he has never seen the polygraph graph, although he has asked to. Her first lawyer also asked to see it, and never did. 

The detectives also question how she first became a suspect. She originally called police and turned over two bottles of Excedrin. "Why in the world would she have a second bottle of contaminated capsules just sitting there waiting to hand over to law enforcement," asks Farr. 

The police say Stella told them she bought them at different times, probably at different stores. Stella denies this, and says she told them she didn't know where she had bought the bottles. Stella's friend A.J. Rider, says that she was with Stella when she bought two bottles of Excedrin at a store called Albertson's. The government says all required documents were handed over. 

The detectives discovered an FBI memo that seems to support Rider's account. It was found among a thousand pages never turned over to the defense. In these documents, there are reports about other possible suspects and mysterious fingerprints on Sue Snow’s bottle. Another memo mentions that Stella's two Excedrin bottles came from one store, Albertsons. The FBI refused to comment. 

Rider was never called to testify. She lived with the Nickells months before Bruce died. But by the time of the trial, Rider says, the FBI had convinced her that her friend was the killer. She refused to help the defense team. A few years later, though, she had a change of heart. "It all just kind of dawned on me, wait a minute, this was a whole setup," she says. 

Farr and Ciolino talked to other people who were also rewarded for their role in the case. Stella's neighbor, Sandy Scott, became a spy for the FBI. She was paid $7,500. She even searched Stella's home for algae destroyer. She found none, something the jury never heard. Noonan, the fish store manager, was paid a $15,000 reward. 

Stella is not perfect: She once served four months in jail for check fraud. When Cindy was 9, Stella was charged with hitting her with a curtain rod, bruising her legs. Stella denies abusing her children: "(Hamilton) wasn't feeling good. She wanted to stay home. There was nothing wrong with her. I sent her to school; she told the nurse I had beat her that morning. They arrested me and I was only in jail overnight." 

Stella, who was ordered to go to counseling, says her daughter was jealous of her. 

Farr and Ciolino believe that finding Hamilton is the key to their case. After searching for months, they found her in Southern California. Over a few weeks, Farr met with her twice. She said that she didn’t testify for the reward. 

They are not sure where the dialogue will lead. "She can sometimes be very, very skillfully evasive," says Farr. 

She stands by her testimony that her mother had talked about killing Bruce, though she never said Stella confessed. She told Farr that she is not sure her mother is really guilty. 

On the basis of their new findings, Stella's legal team today filed a request for a new trial. But police investigators and the federal government still firmly believe she is guilty. The detectives say they simply don't know who the killer is. 

"It's entirely possible that the real killer is walking around somewhere out there," says Farr. "But more importantly, I know who didn't do it and that's Stella Nickell." 

If you have information regarding this case, please contact Al Farr at

Innocent Imprisoned
Truth in Justice