Field of Science

A particularly heinous crime: Neurology professor poisons neurologist wife

From Science Careers comes this account of a heartbreaking and especially twisted crime. A professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh, Robert Ferrante, has been charged with poisoning his 41-year-old wife with cyanide, an ancient poison that never seems to lose its allure. The wife was also a neurologist at the university. What really stunned me was this part:

"Authorities say that Ferrante poisoned Klein by mixing cyanide with creatine, CBSNews reports. According to Ferrante's online biography, his work "has provided the basis for human trials" using creatine. Klein consumed the drink because Ferrante told her it would help them conceive a child."

It takes a special kind of heartless monster to do that.

I cannot easily find references about using creatine to facilitate conception; since it's used as a nutritional supplement for muscle building and strength, Ferrante could have used a very simple argument to convince his wife to drink the deadly concoction. Apparently he obtained the cyanide through a lab member using a university credit card. One wonders if his associate ever suspected what a neurologist would need 250 grams of cyanide for (unfortunately chemists can obtain quantities of cyanide quite easily; I have seen half a pound of cyanide sitting in a chemical cabinet). Ferrante also seems to have performed the initial experiments within open sight of lab personnel:

He asked for the "best and purest cyanide he could get" to be delivered the next day, the witness said.

In addition, the affidavit continued, Mr. Ferrante asked that the chemical be purchased using a separate credit card not typically used in the lab.

A witness told investigators that particular card is a "last choice for purchases" and that it was the first time Mr. Ferrante had used it. Out of 145 chemicals bought by the lab, the only one purchased not related to a project or grant was the cyanide.

The same day the chemical arrived, another person in the lab witnessed Mr. Ferrante obtain a large container of creatine, measure it, mix it with water and sucrose and then drink it.

Early on April 17, Mr. Ferrante asked the witness to measure out more of the creatine, and they then placed it in a bag.

That day, according to the report, Mr. Ferrante and Klein exchanged text messages in which she said she would begin ovulating the next day. Mr. Ferrante told her to take creatine.

"I'm serious," he texted. "It will make a huge difference. I am certain of it."

When paramedics arrived at the couple's home to treat Klein the night she collapsed, according to the affidavit, they noted a 1-gallon resealable plastic bag containing a white substance along with a small glass vial in the kitchen, where Klein was found on the floor.

The report also says that out of the 250 grams of cyanide, 8.3 grams were missing. The lethal dose of cyanide is pegged at 200 milligrams on many websites; the exact dose and duration of action depends on factors like the contents of the stomach, with a higher secretion of stomach acid facilitating poisoning. In any case, if Ferrante is indeed guilty, then from the description it seems that he has left ample evidence. 

I can never understand what can possibly cause someone to put their entire life, career and reputation on the line and exhaust all other avenues of domestic conflict resolution, no matter how complicated their personal lives are (in this case a divorce might have been a simple solution). In any case, there's not much use speculating right now since Ferrante has not been officially convicted yet. But if he is indeed guilty of what he has been charged with, I cannot possibly think of subjecting him to anything other than the harshest possible punishment that is feasible for this kind of a crime.

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