This undated photo shows University of Pittsburgh medical researcher Dr. Robert Ferrante, the key suspect in the April 2013 poisoning of his wife.
(Photo: AP Photo/Allegheny County District Attorney)
PITTSBURGH (AP) - A University of Pittsburgh medical researcher was charged with criminal homicide for allegedly poisoning his wife, a neurologist at the university's medical school, authorities said Thursday, and Pittsburgh police were in Florida to arrest him.
Dr. Robert Ferrante, 64, allegedly laced an energy supplement with cyanide before giving it to his wife, Dr. Autumn Klein, 41, hours after they exchanged text messages about how the supplement could help them conceive a child, according to a police complaint unsealed Thursday.
"Will it stimulate egg production too?" Klein asked about nine hours before she fell ill.
He responded with a smiling emoticon.
Police traveled to St. Augustine, Fla., to find Ferrante, a leading researcher on Lou Gehrig's disease. Police and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. would not say why Ferrante was in Florida, or when he might return to Pennsylvania to face the charge.
Defense attorney William Difenderfer has previously said Ferrante denies involvement in his wife's death, but declined to comment further Thursday except to confirm speaking with Ferrante while arranging his arrest.
Klein, chief of women's neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, died April 20 after suddenly falling ill at home three days earlier. Blood drawn from Klein had high levels of acid so doctors had it tested for cyanide as a precaution, even noting it was unlikely, according to a police complaint. Those tests revealed a lethal level of cyanide, but only after Klein had died and been cremated at her husband's insistence, police said.
Two days before his wife fell ill, Ferrante allegedly bought more than a half pound of cyanide using a university credit card, which police determined was the only substance he purchased not related to his work, according to an unidentified witness who helped him order "the best and purest cyanide he could get."
Witnesses then saw Ferrante drinking samples of creatine, the energy supplement referenced in the text messages, that he took from the lab and mixed with water and sugar. They told police Ferrante put the creatine in a large, resealable plastic bag.
According to the police complaint, paramedics who responded to a 911 call after Klein collapsed at home saw a small glass vial near a resealable plastic bag containing a white substance that Ferrante told them was creatine.
While the criminal complaint showed Klein may have been trying to get pregnant by Ferrante, he also suspected she was having an affair with a man in Boston.
That man told police he occasionally met Klein for dinner or drinks and that she complained Ferrante was controlling and not supportive of her job or her their daughter.
The man said Klein visited him in Boston overnight in June 2012 and attended a medical conference with him later that year in Atlanta and another in San Francisco in February.
Within weeks of her death, police determined Ferrante confronted Klein three times about whether she was having an affair. Other evidence shows Klein "intended to have a conversation with Ferrante and that Ferrante would 'not like the discussion,'" police said.
Klein was also an only child and didn't want her 6-year-old daughter to be one too, her mother Lois Klein, 78, of Towson, Md., has told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She said Klein was taking fertility drugs and said police had questioned her about whether Ferrante wanted another child, too.
Klein did not answer her home phone and an answering machine would not take a message Thursday.
Zappala said in a news release that Klein's parents have custody of their granddaughter.
Ferrante and Klein met while she was a student and Ferrante worked at the VA hospital in Bedford, Mass. They were married in 2001. Ferrante worked at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital before moving to Pittsburgh with Klein two years ago to join the university's neurological surgery team.
The university said it is cooperating with the investigation and that Ferrante has been placed in indefinite leave due to the charges. Ferrante has been denied access to the lab since police started investigating Klein's death in May.
A lethal dose of cyanide is about 200 milligrams, about 1/25th the weight of a nickel, said John Trestrail, a pharmacist and expert who taught a class on criminal poisoning at the FBI National Academy.
Cyanide kills by destroying cells.
"In the cells, we have a power plant, so to speak, that produces energy and cyanide basically short-circuits that ability to produce energy, and we can't use oxygen, and the cells die rapidly," Trestrail said. "It goes body-wide."