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Police arrest Pitt researcher in wife's cyanide killing

What police allege

Pittsburgh Police on Thursday charged Robert Ferrante with using cyanide to poison his wife, Dr. Autumn Klein. Key allegations in the criminal complaint:

= Witnesses working in a University of Pittsburgh lab told police that Ferrante personally ordered 250 grams of potassium cyanide on April 15 even though he wasn't involved in a research project that called for it.

= Police said Ferrante took creatine, an amino acid athletes often take to improve performance, from the same lab where the cyanide Ferrante ordered was stored.

= Text messages between Ferrante and Klein show he encouraged her to take creatine, ostensibly to enhance her fertility during ovulation.

= Ferrante told a 911 operator April 17 his wife was gravely ill but he wanted paramedics to take her to UPMC Shadyside even though UPMC Presbyterian, where the couple worked, is 1 mile closer to their Lytton Avenue home and is better equipped to handle major trauma cases.

= Paramedics told police they noticed Klein was lying on the couple's kitchen floor next to a plastic bag, which Ferrante said contained creatine, and a small glass vial.

= Witnesses at the hospital said Ferrante spoke of his wife in the past tense and, while she was still being treated, he said, “I'm going to spend the last night with the love of my life.”

= Ferrante told medical personnel that he didn't think an autopsy would be necessary because any toxins would have washed out of her blood.

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By Mike Wereschagin and Margaret Harding
Thursday, July 25, 2013, 2:09 p.m.
 

A troubled marriage, a jealous husband and a container of cyanide added up to murder of a prominent UPMC doctor, police allege in a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday.

In the complaint filed the day before in Municipal Court, Pittsburgh police say Robert J. Ferrante, a University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist, encouraged his wife, Dr. Autumn Marie Klein, a neurologist, to drink a nutritional supplement he said would aid her fertility and help her to have the second child she wanted so badly.

Klein, 41, collapsed April 17 at home near a bag of creatine and died with a lethal concentration of cyanide in her system. The couple has a 6-year-old daughter.

Ferrante's attorney, William Difenderfer, said the doctor is “obviously disappointed.” West Virginia State Police located Ferrante outside Beckley, W.Va., and arrested him.

That capped a day in which two detectives flew to St. Augustine, Fla., to capture Ferrante, missing him as he drove north amid a multistate alert.

Detectives Harry Lutton and Robert Provident went to the home of Ferrante's sister and found his daughter with her but learned the doctor was driving back to Pittsburgh, city police Lt. Kevin Kraus said at a news conference.

They learned he was driving along Interstate 77 in West Virginia and notified state police. Troopers took Ferrante into custody shortly before 7 p.m., Kraus said.

When asked why police did not wait for Ferrante to reach Pittsburgh, Kraus replied: “There's a lot of things that could happen, especially with someone of Dr. Ferrante's stature, when they are wanted for homicide.”

Ferrante is being held in the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver, W.Va., to await arraignment and extradition, Kraus said.

Difenderfer said Ferrante, 64, a professor of neurological surgery, was on his way to Pittsburgh to turn himself in.

“Our office will be working with prosecutors in West Virginia to extradite the defendant in a timely fashion,” said Mike Manko, a spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

UPMC placed Ferrante on indefinite leave after receiving the 11-page criminal complaint, spokesman John Fedele said.

Autumn Klein's cousin, Sharon King, 43, of Bellingham, Wash., said the family is grieving the death and declined to discuss the case in detail for fear of jeopardizing it.

“I want justice for Autumn,” said King, who grew up with Klein. “My whole family just wants justice for her.”

The complaint offers new details in a case that captured the attention of people across the country the past three months.

It describes the dramatic final weeks of a troubled marriage, the purchase of a deadly poison by a suspicious husband and the end of Klein's promising life.

Ferrante bought a bottle of cyanide with a UPMC credit card on April 15 and had it shipped overnight to his laboratory. Two days later, paramedics picked his wife's unresponsive body off the kitchen floor of their Schenley Farms home and took her to UPMC Presbyterian.

The medics saw a bag of white powder — creatine, Ferrante told them — and a vial near her body. She died April 20. The Allegheny County medical examiner said acute cyanide poisoning killed her.

Klein planned to leave Ferrante, a friend told police. She told the friend that Ferrante was controlling and unsupportive with her fast-rising career and their daughter, according to the complaint. Police withheld the friend's identity and that of nine other witnesses “to ensure their safety and to preserve the integrity of this ongoing investigation,” the complaint says.

Ferrante suspected Klein and her friend — identified only as Witness #6 — were having an affair, the friend told police. Investigators said Ferrante confronted her three times about the accusation.

A witness who worked for Ferrante, co-director of the Center for ALS Research and a visiting professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, said the April 15 purchase was the only time he ordered a chemical himself and that Ferrante had no ongoing research projects that required cyanide.

In the lab where he kept the cyanide, a witness told police Ferrante mixed the dietary supplement creatine into a drink, something police said he was trying to get his wife to drink, supposedly to aid her fertility treatments. The witness said he or she helped Ferrante measure the powdered creatine into a one-gallon resealable bag. Paramedics spotted a similar bag later when they arrived at Ferrante's home to aid Klein, police said.

One witness told police that Ferrante's reaction to seeing his wife on the exam table “seemed fake and like ‘bad acting,'” according to the complaint.

Cyanide kills by starving cells of oxygen, said former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, who consulted with Ferrante's lawyers at their request. “It acts fast, and it metabolizes quickly,” Wecht said.

The poison is “pretty much undetectable” anywhere from 60 minutes to three hours after a person ingests it, said John Trestrail, director of the Center for the Study of Criminal Poisoning.

A UPMC Presbyterian doctor ordered a bevy of tests on Klein's blood — a deadline decision that helped lead investigators to the poison that killed her, said Dr. Karl Williams, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner.

Her death baffled investigators at first, Williams said. But tests from Quest Diagnostics showed 3.4 milligrams of cyanide per liter. Anything more than 3 milligrams per liter is considered lethal.

“When we got a lethal cyanide level, you go, ‘Well, that explains it,'” Williams said.

Williams' office contacted the funeral home where Klein's body was taken so they could conduct more tests — only to find the home cremated her on April 23, the day after Williams gave them the body, on Ferrante's orders, according to the complaint.

Klein's mother, Lois, declined comment on Thursday. “I cannot talk to you now,” she told a reporter over the phone.

Klein was chief of women's neurology at UPMC and an assistant professor of neurology, obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Pitt. She treated pregnant women with neurological problems such as headaches and seizures. Klein had offices in Magee-Womens Hospital and the Kaufmann Medical Building.

When police told Ferrante his wife died of cyanide poisoning, he paused for a few seconds, then said, “Why would she do that to herself?” and then, “Who would do this to her?” according to the complaint.

Though cyanide poisoning is among the rarest forms of murder, it takes little of it to kill someone, Trestrail said. The weight of a nickel is equivalent to about 25 lethal doses — about 200 milligrams each — of cyanide, he said.

When police searched Ferrante's laboratory, they found 8.3 grams missing from the bottle of cyanide he'd ordered, according to the complaint.

Ferrante and Klein had planned to go to Boston in May. Initially, Klein was going to make the trip herself and stay with the friend with whom Ferrante suspected she was romantically involved.

On April 13, Klein sent her friend a text message.

“Change of plans. Husband is coming to Boston. Told me ‘to keep me out of trouble'.”

“Oh dear,” he replied. “Did not know you were in trouble.”

She replied, “I feel like I have been for a while now.”

Staff writers David Conti and Adam Brandolph contributed to this report. Mike Wereschagin and Margaret Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7900; reach her at 412-380-8519.

 

 
 


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