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Stella M. Nickell Case:

Stella M. Nickell Case:
Introduction of the case

This web site presents the story about how one woman, Stella M. Nickell, was abruptly plucked from the citizenry with careless abandon… arrested, tried and convicted for two murders that she did not commit. Much of the responsibility for orchestrating this tragedy falls on a single renegade F.B.I. agent who currently refuses to discuss the case, in spite of a mountain of evidence that Stella M. Nickell was framed as a direct result of his less-than-honest effort.

Stella's husband Bruce was the first victim to fall to the deadly effects of cyanide mingled in Excedrin capsules. The autopsy surgeon declared his cause of death as "emphysema." Just five days later Sue Snow passed away. Her autopsy revealed the presence of cyanide in her system. Thus began an incredible series of lies, deceit and, what developed to be a successful attempt to frame Stella M. Nickell for these murders. Hiding witnesses under their "witness protection" program, when in reality those witnesses had little or no information that would help with the prosecution of Stella Nickell. On the contrary, their knowledge alone would, without doubt, have set her free early on.

I have spent well over 3,000 hours and traveled many thousands of miles investigating this case. This ultimately led me to ask Carl Colbert, an attorney/client of mine in Gig Harbor, Washington, to represent Stella Nickell in future proceedings. He has, in a most unselfish manner, spent hundreds of hours on the case. As a criminal defense lawyer and a human being, he has proven himself to be worthy of any honors bestowed upon him.

There are many additions yet to be made to this site. Reviewing it should generate concerns about how and why an ordinary citizen could get caught up in a set of unholy circumstances through no fault of their own. It will give you, in no uncertain terms, a detailed tutorial on how some individuals in our law enforcement system deliberately, and with no concern whatsoever for the truth or facts, frame an innocent person for no other reason than to be able to carve another "notch on their gun."

Reviewing this site should scream at you:


Alwin L. Farr

If you have information regarding this case, please contact Al Farr at find-em@find-em.com


By: Alwin L. Farr

On the afternoon of Thursday, June 5, 1986, Bruce Nickell returned home from work as a heavy equipment mechanic for the State of Washington. He complained of a headache and ingested four Excedrin capsule pain relievers. A short while later he collapsed. His wife Stella immediately called paramedics, who rushed him to Harborview Hospital. He died a few hours later. An autopsy was performed on him at the hospital, the cause of death entered as emphysema.

Just six days later, on June 11th, at about 6:30 a.m., Sue Snow collapsed on her bathroom floor of her Auburn home while preparing to go to work at the Puget Sound National Bank. She had been a successful and much admired commercial banker. Her husband of seven months, Paul Webking, was a truck driver and had left for work just an hour or so before that. Paramedics were called by Sue’s daughter Hayley, and Sue was taken by helicopter to Harborview Hospital, arriving at about 8:00 a.m. The concentrated efforts of Dr. Brian Trimble and his medical team were not enough to save Sue Snow’s life. Four hours later she too died.

Sue Snow’s autopsy was conducted at the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. A well-known and respected pathologist, Corinne Fligner and her assistant conducted the post mortem. During the autopsy procedure the assistant sensed the odor of bitter almonds, a clear sign of the possibility of cyanide involvement. Lab tests proved it was just that; cyanide poisoning.

Washington was suddenly in a state of panic. The small town of Auburn’s police department was overwhelmed. King County declared a state of emergency. All over-the-counter drugs/products in capsules were removed from stores everywhere.

On June 9, two days prior to Sue Snow’s death, Stella Nickell buried her husband Bruce, an only child of a prominent couple who had spent many years fostering their apple orchards in Wenatchee, Washington.

On June 16th the Food & Drug Administration publicly announced the lot numbers of the Excedrin products suspected of containing the deadly poison. The following day an appeal was broadcast through all media outlets to be on the watch for Excedrin products bearing those lot numbers. That same day the F.B.I. entered the case and effectively took over the investigation from the Auburn Police Department. The senior investigator was a Special Agent Jack Cusack, a fifteen-year veteran of the F.B.I.

The following day, June 17th, Stella was at the home she had shared with her husband Bruce. On a ten-acre plot of wooded land Bruce and Stella had set up two mobile homes; one for them and one for Stella’s mother Cora. Stella was in the midst of ironing and watching television simultaneously when she first saw the public announcement to watch for Excedrin capsule products. She remembered that Bruce had taken some for his headache prior to collapsing just twelve days earlier. She looked in her kitchen cabinet to find two bottles of the product, one of them unopened. She called the King County Police Department, who sent a deputy out that same day to pick up the bottles, and interviewed Stella in the process.

Stella had serious doubts about the “emphysema” finding on her husband’s death certificate. She had a solid reason for doubting it; Bruce had never shown any of the familiar symptoms of the disease. Also, Bruce had submitted to an x-ray a few months before his death, and nothing unusual was observed.

A plastic bottle containing poison filled Excedrin capsules was found in Sue Snow’s home. More contaminated Excedrin product was found on a local store’s shelf. An Anacin bottle was also found to be laden with cyanide filled capsules. Now the investigation was in full swing, with fifty or more F.B.I. agents and countless other law enforcement officers combing the area for any clues that might lead them to the person responsible.

Some of the product that was known to be contaminated was sent to the renowned F.B.I. lab in Washington, D.C. There, a “chemist” by the name of Roger Martz was put in charge of examining the samples to determine what he could from them. His trial testimony reflects his isolating the cyanide factor from the samples. The little green crystals he stated came from a product known as Algae Destroyer, an algaecide used in aquariums. Mr. Martz testified alternately as a chemist, analytical chemist in addition to some of his theories regarding toxic involvement. His educational background indicated he graduated from college with a degree in biology, not chemistry. His testimony at trial covered at least three distinctly separate fields of expertise that are not interchangeable. He was not professionally qualified to testify in this area, and was eventually removed as Supervising Special Agent and Unit Chief of the F.B.I.’s chemistry lab. He was censured by the Stephen R. Colgate, Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, who cited numerous examples of his unprofessional conduct.

A portion of that censure shed light on Mr. Martz’ testimony in the case of the State of Florida vs. George Trepal, in which the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to death. One of many remarks in that censure included the following: “Your admissions that your documentation of your case work in this case was deficient in several respects, and that you provided trial testimony that exceeded the available scientific findings, are evidence of your serious misconduct.” This is just one of many negative comments in the seven-page letter of censure.

The Appellate Court judge in the Trepal case also issued a blistering rebuke of Mr. Martz’ testimony. In the meantime, Jack Cusack and his F.B.I. team of agents had been working closely with the local authorities in King County. The subject of Stella Nickell’s call to the King County Police Department came up, and she was contacted by one of the investigating agents over the phone. She was asked if she would permit a search of her home the following morning. She readily agreed. Her friend and neighbor, Sandy Scott, the wife of a King County deputy, spent that night with her and was at Stella’s home throughout the period of the F.B.I.’s search of the home. It was a very thorough search. Every canister, bottle, receipt....virtually the entire home....was “tossed” as they say. No evidence of cyanide or it’s derivative were found anywhere on the property.

When Roger Martz advised the Seattle agents of his findings of the algaecide mixed with the cyanide in the capsules they suddenly remembered that Stella Nickell had a fish tank in her home. It was known that Stella’s friend and neighbor Sandy Scott was the wife of a King County deputy. Jack Cusack first contacted the deputy to see if he would speak to his wife about something Agent Cusack wanted her to do. Sandy Scott took great exception to being approached in that manner. Agent Cusack eventually came to see Scott in person and asked her to keep an eye on Stella, and who might be visiting her. Sandy kept a sharp eye on Stella’s movements from behind the trees and shrubbery on her own property across the road. Using her binoculars she was able to see virtually all that occurred in plain view.

Agent Cusack then asked Scott to do something else. Go to visit Stella and, whenever possible, search her house for any sign of the crystallized form of the algaecide, Algae Destroyer. Sandy did just that and found no sign of it. She did find an unopened bottle of liquid algaecide, a product known as “Algae-Gone”.

Agents canvassed every pet store in the area, and found a willing witness by the name of Thomas Noonan. He identified Stella Nickell as one of his customers, and further stated that he “special ordered” large amounts of Algae Destroyer for her on more than one occasion.

(I was accompanied by Investigator Paul J. Ciolino when I interviewed Mr. Noonan, and documented it with video tape. I had obtained a detailed list of every item ordered by the store he had been employed at year earlier. The order list covered a wide span of time, beginning long before Mr. Nickell and Ms. Snow died. When shown these documents, Mr. Noonan admitted there “had been no special order of Algae-Destroyer” by anyone; not Stella, not anyone. After the interview was concluded he continued to speak out, relating a special and personal relationship with Sue Snow. As a banker she financed the first car he ever owned.)


Then came the news that Stella had attempted to cash in on $176,000 in life insurance proceeds from Bruce’s death. A closer look today at the actual paper trail clearly suggests the amount was nowhere near that.

The pharmaceutical industry posted a $300,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the person/s responsible for this terrible act. On the very day Stella allowed the agents to search her home her daughter Cindy showed up. Cindy saw what was going on and had a near hysterical fit, screaming obscenities at the agents in defense of her mother. This struck Stella and more than a few people as odd, as the mother-daughter relationship had been, to put it mildly, strained for many years. Shortly after that, Cindy’s roommate and best friend was clearly overheard stating it was she who had called the F.B.I. about Stella, and adamantly complained that “Cindy was going to get $250,000”, rather than herself.

Cindy then told Cusack a story of how her mother had confided in her a wish to kill her husband Bruce, and that she’d discussed several different ways of doing it. Cindy spoke of this to the agents for several months before she found herself and her best friend being put up at a trendy (government sponsored) Ocean Shores resort for a week or so in January, 1987. This was done to give Cindy and her roommate time to “....think things over.” It was shortly after that when Cindy gave a formal statement to the F.B.I. The problem was, virtually none of her story could be corroborated with physical evidence or forensic evidence. There was none.

Cindy’s colorful background was of little or no concern to the agents, and she was ultimately paid $250,000 for her testimony at trial.

Thomas Noonan, the fish store clerk, was paid $15,000. Sandy Scott, the friend and neighbor who conducted the warrantless search was paid $7,500. The remaining reward dollars were distributed to other witnesses for the prosecution.

On December 15, 1986 Stella willingly submitted to what she thought was a legitimate polygraph examination administered by Special Agent Jack Cusack, the leading investigator. After all, she had been cooperative throughout the investigation. She thought the examination would, once and for all, clear her of any suspicion of her involvement with this crime. Stella and Agent Cusack agree on one point, that after the polygraph examination was conducted Cusack told Stella he thought she was guilty of the crime. Stella vehemently denied it, and since she was not under arrest, abruptly left the F.B.I. offices in Seattle.

In January, 1987 (subsequent to her daughter Cindy’s damn the expense Ocean Shores vacation paid for by the government) Stella Nickell was arrested. The trial lasted just two and one-half weeks, with the jury deliberating five days. Stella was found guilty of two counts of product tampering, both of which were found to have resulted in the deaths of Bruce Nickell and Sue Snow.

In the midst of the jury’s deliberations one of the jurors caused a huge stir by reporting that she had been contacted at her home by telephone. The question asked of her was yet another surprise. “What in the .... are you guys doing?!” Don’t you know she flunked the polygraph test?!” One must ask who would’ve benefited from this jury tampering process? An immediate motion for a mistrial was made by defense attorney, Federal Public Defender Thomas Hiller. Denied.

Attorney Hiller had entered a series of discovery motions prior to trial, including a specific request for all the details of the supposed polygraph examination. Paperwork was provided, but conspicuously missing was the actual polygraph, which was never to be seen. Many wonder if it ever existed at all. Dr. David C. Raskin, a nationally respected polygraph expert was hired by the defense to examine those records. He flew from Utah to Seattle to do so. He patiently waited all afternoon. The F.B.I. refused to allow him an examination of the data, even though the defense was fully entitled to do so. His declaration is extremely informative, and will be included on this site.

When defense Attorney Hillier attempted to enter into the trial record the questions over the reward money and who was likely to benefit from it his motion was met with fierce resistance by Prosecutor Joanne Maida. Ms. Maida countered with her request to elicit testimony from Stella’s daughter Cindy that her mother had supposedly told her of the failed polygraph examination on the evening of December 15, 1986.

Trial Judge Dwyer’s ruling stated that Prosecutor Maida could not elicit any testimony regarding the polygraph examination. He also ruled that Attorney Hillier would not be allowed to mention the reward in any way, shape or form. That ruling extended to Stella, and any testimony she might give as well.

Stella testified on her own behalf. Prosecutor Maida (well aware of the judge’s ruling regarding the mention of a reward) in cross-examination of Stella, asked why she thought her daughter Cindy would go through the two-days of trauma in testifying against her. Stella was relegated to answering, “I don’t know.” She wanted to tell the jury the truth; that Cindy simply did it for the money. She wanted to tell them many things about Cindy’s methods of making money. As Stella puts it, when she answered that fully loaded question posed by Prosecutor Maida, she saw any confidence the jurors may have had in her evaporate in an instant.

Included in the linked exhibits is the appeal brief prepared by Attorney Carl Colbert, and filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on June 4, 2001. In early September of that year we received word that the appeal had been denied. It went on to state that the appellant “had not met the burden” required to order the granting of a new trial, or even so much as an evidentiary hearing to determine if a new trial was warranted.

As stated in the above introduction, many items are being prepared for inclusion on this site. Some of those will be the separate declarations in support of that brief. As you review each declaration you too will be asking yourself many questions, including “How in the world could they arrest (let alone convict) this person of this crime?”
The first declaration would be that of Dr. Brian Trimble. He was the senior emergency room physician on duty on the morning of June 11, 1986 at Harborview Hospital in Seattle, Washington. His declaration, describing his attempts to save the life of the second victim Sue Snow, speaks volumes. It is based on a signed statement he provided the police detectives who were initially assigned to the case on or about June 14, 1986. Dr. Trimble describes in detail his conversation with an individual who broached the possibility of cyanide in Excedrin capsules nearly one hour before Ms. Snow died. More importantly, cyanide was not a known factor for another several days. This statement was never provided to the defense team, and of course was not presented for examination in trial. It wasn’t until nearly fourteen years later that investigator Janet Pipes and I discovered it in a cardboard box of what appeared to be “junk” paperwork retained by the City of Auburn, who vigorously resisted our request/s to view the material. The doctor’s statement simply did not fit the police investigator’s theory of the case, so it was kept deeply (and very quietly) tucked away for so many years.

By the time I read the doctor’s statement I had already spent several months reviewing the trial transcript, numerous other documents and looking into the backgrounds of many of the people associated with this case. A number of things were bothering me about this case, but it was the shocking content of the doctor’s statement that compelled me to dig deeper ... much deeper ... into this case. This was by no means to be the last shock I would sustain as it related to brazen manner in which evidence was withheld, and other more gross departures from a quality investigation. This was merely the first one among many.

It is no understatement that the intentional or unintentional withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence is a serious matter. It is a serious violation of law, clearly explained in a Supreme Court decision stemming from a matter known as Brady vs. State of Maryland. Under the 14th amendment to our constitution all defendants have the basic right to see and examine any evidence the prosecution plans to use against them in trial. More importantly, the prosecution MUST provide the defense with any potential exculpatory information that holds even a remote possibility of highlighting a defendant’s innocence. Even the unwitting or unintentional withholding of this information is against the law. How many times this fundamental rule of law was ignored in Stella Nickell’s case!!

The Supreme Court ruled Mr. Brady was denied a fair trial due largely to the prosecutors’ withholding evidence that gave solid credence to Brady’s innocence. In Stella M. Nickell’s case there were multiple instances in which hard evidence and/or witnesses were either manipulated or purposefully hidden from the defense team altogether. Individually, the evidence and the witnesses I discovered and documented years later cast huge shadows of doubt on the prosecution’s presentation. The collective impact of those witnesses and that evidence is far greater.

Many of the witnesses received substantial portions of money from the $300,000 reward posted by the pharmaceutical industry that was losing millions of dollars each day the case remained “unsolved”. The star witness for the prosecution, the defendant’s oldest daughter, was paid $250,000 for her trouble as just one example. I interviewed her at length on two occasions in 2001. Her story had changed considerably by then, and the $250,000 she was paid for her testimony had been squandered within two years of receiving it. One of the prosecution’s most negative witnesses was paid $15,000; yet, his videotaped statement to me presents a wide departure from his testimony at trial. The additional information he offered was another shocker. Did the prospect of huge amounts of reward money impact the testimony of these and other witnesses?

At a point roughly fifteen months into my investigation I enlisted the aid of a friend and well-known colleague, Paul J. Ciolino from Chicago to obtain an another professional’s opinion of the evidence I had uncovered. As the stepson of a career law enforcement officer, and more than thirty years as an investigator, I wanted to make certain my observations, discoveries and opinions were absolutely accurate. Paul also assisted in the interviews of some of the crucial witnesses remaining, for which I am grateful.

We hold an abiding respect for law enforcement in general, and I do believe that most of the time they get it right. Unfortunately, some of the individual law enforcement people associated with this case did not, in my opinion, perform anywhere near the accepted standard of fact-based, quality work the public has every right to expect.

Special thanks should go to Dr. Frederick Whitehurst for his unwavering support of my attempts to bring about some semblance of justice in this case. Dr. Whitehurst, a nationally known former F.B.I. scientist, unselfishly spent many hours with me in deciphering a mountain of technical data.

As earlier stated, there will be many additions to this site in the near future. Much of the data soon to be included will give you the tools to determine who lied, and in some instances why they lied. Who else financially benefited from the deaths of Bruce Nickell and Sue Snow? I encourage you to check this site often to see and closely examine the additions. We are still actively working this case, and would appreciate any communication from anyone who might have information that would assist.

Once you discover as I did what the jury was not allowed to hear, in addition to what was hidden from them you may very well have some thoughts to share. Was Stella M. Nickell’s fundamental right to an honest investigation and a fair trial eliminated long before the trial even began? Was she effectively framed? The single most important question of all: Who did kill Bruce Nickell and Sue Snow?

I encourage you to examine each declaration, each piece of evidence as we load them into the site. There is a tremendous amount of data, and we will incorporate it as quickly as possible. Review the news articles covering the case, or any other information available to you through this site or other sources. Put yourself in the jury box, or in the position of any of the cast of characters associated with this case. Then put yourself in Stella M. Nickell’s position as she was then, and now. It is then you might well discover .... this could happen to any innocent person including yourself. I do appreciate your taking the time to review this material. Should you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me through this site.

© 2004 – Alwin L. Farr