Investigators say scientist murdered with arsenic

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

CHESTERFIELD, Mo. -- A nuclear physicist and former McDonnell Douglas Corp. research scientist who died suddenly last summer was deliberately killed with a massive dose of arsenic, authorities said Monday in ruling the case murder.

An investigator in this St. Louis suburb said recently completed toxicology tests now show that 67-year-old John Mullen died of acute arsenic intoxication June 29, within hours of complaining of an upset stomach at his home.

Police Capt. Ed Nestor on Monday refused to publicly divulge many key specifics about the matter, including possible suspects or any motive in the divorcee's death.

"The most important thing here is that we're being patient and doing things right," Nestor said, adding that investigators had been as eager as Mullen's family and friends to identify what killed him.

Nestor said Mullen, who had been divorced for many years, largely lived alone but was letting a girlfriend's daughter stay with him at the time he fell ill and eventually died.

Refusing to elaborate, Nestor said police "treated this case as suspicious from the beginning," crediting an officer who first responded with paramedics to Mullen's house with suspecting more than just a man's upset stomach.

"I can't tell you exactly why there was a suspicion raised, but there was," Nestor said.

The investigator said that aside from some unspecified "health problems," Mullen generally was "relatively healthy for a gentleman his age."

Lengthy lab testing

Nestor downplayed the several months it took to pinpoint a possible cause of death, saying "a poisoning case is a very difficult one to investigate," requiring a spate of potentially lengthy lab tests.

"The real key to this is the lab work, and it takes time," he said.

Nestor would not say how Mullen was exposed to the arsenic or where it came from, including whether the victim, as a scientist, perhaps had the element stored at home.

Household products that contain arsenic -- a naturally occurring mineral found in soil, bedrock, and water -- include rat poison, pesticides and wood preservatives.

Arsenic often can be tricky to identify and trace, given that the poison is colorless, usually tasteless and doesn't linger in the body. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning mimic those of other ailments, and lab tests are needed to find the compound.

Exposure to a toxic dose of arsenic produces a dry, burning sensation in the mouth and throat and a constricted feeling in the throat, followed by severe abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea and vomiting, according to the medical Web site www.emedicine.com.

Arsenic attacks the liver, kidneys, brain and heart, causing some victims to go into a coma, suffer convulsions and have severe brain damage, in other cases causing death.

Nestor said there was no evidence Mullen's death was related to his work as a one-time research scientist with McDonnell Douglas, the St. Louis-based aerospace giant folded into Boeing Co. in the late 1990s.

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