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Unsealed warrants in cyanide poisoning case point to financial, family stress

| Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, 3:45 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Robert Ferrante, 64, of Schenley Farms, enters his extradition hearing in handcuffs and shackles at Raleigh County Circuit Court in Beckley, WV on Monday, July 29, 2013. Ferrante, a visiting professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, was taken into custody by West Virginia police on the previous Thursday after Allegheny County Prosecutor's Office issued a warrant for his arrest in relation to the death of his wife, Autumn Marie Klein. Klein, 41, a UPMC neurologist, was found unresponsive in the home she shared with Ferrante and their 6-year-old daughter
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Dr. Autumn Marie Klein collapsed on April 17, 2013, and died three days later with a lethal concentration of cyanide in her system.

In the weeks after a prominent UPMC neurologist was poisoned to death, investigators explored whether costly fertilization treatments strained the family's finances and her relationship with her husband, search warrants unsealed on Thursday reveal.

Dr. Robert Ferrante, who is accused of killing his wife Dr. Autumn Klein, “was not agreeable to or supportive of Klein's decision to attempt to have another child,” wrote Jackelyn Weibel, a detective with the Allegheny County District Attorney's office, in a May 23 search warrant request.

He urged her, however, to take the dietary supplement creatine to help her become pregnant when she told him April 17 she soon would begin ovulation. She collapsed that day and died three days later. The criminal complaint against Ferrante accuses him of poisoning Klein with cyanide.

Another sign of strain between the two: Investigators believe Ferrante suspected Klein was having an affair with a friend, according to the criminal complaint.

Detectives requested a search warrant for text messages and phone records between Klein and Dr. Thomas McElrath, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a doctor at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Nearly 60 search warrant requests were unsealed, showing investigators sought the personal and work computers of Klein and Ferrante, their cellphones, a camera, email accounts, retirement and other financial accounts, human resource files, funeral arrangements and records of organ donation, among others.

According to one of the warrants, Ferrante told investigators Klein ordered fertility drugs from Canada to save money and asked the facility to delay processing her credit card and check payments more than once. Klein underwent in vitro fertilization, or IVF, using an egg donor on several occasions in a two-year period, the warrant request said.

Using an egg donor can raise the cost of IVF treatment to $30,000 a treatment, said Nancy Hemenway, executive director of the InterNational Council on Infertility Information Dissemination, a nonprofit that helps couples or individuals with “family building” and offers a scholarship for IVF treatment.

“You're talking $10,000 to $15,000 for the donor expense, and then you have the IVF cycle,” Hemenway said. “It's a very long, painful process for the donor and the recipient.”

August 2012 medical records obtained by investigators from Reproductive Health Specialist suggest that Klein did not have insurance coverage for IVF and was unsure how much money she owed from her last cycle of IVF.

Hemenway said insurance companies rarely cover IVF treatments.

“There are a number of insurance companies that will pay for diagnostics,” she said. “Once you find out what is wrong, they say, ‘Sorry, we won't pay for that.' ”

Weibel wrote that she suspects “the high cost of these IVF treatments (without insurance coverage) may have been putting a strain on the family's finances.”

Weibel wrote that based on University of Pittsburgh human resources records, the couple's yearly income exceeded $300,000. Their assets totaled $3.4 million, including more than $2.5 million in bank accounts in solely Ferrante's name, $209,000 in joint savings and a Schenley Farms home worth $525,000, according to records compiled by the District Attorney's Office.

Common Pleas Judge David Cashman imposed a gag order in the case. The judge froze all but $280,000 of Ferrante's assets and placed his daughter, Cianna, who was 6 at the time of Klein's death, with her grandparents, Bill and Lois Klein of Towson, Md.

Pittsburgh police said Ferrante, a leading researcher of the neurological disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, bought cyanide with a Pitt credit card on April 15 and had it sent overnight to his laboratory. One witness told police that on April 17, he helped Ferrante measure a gallon of creatine and put it in a resealable bag.

Ferrante called 911 that night to say Klein had collapsed in their home. When paramedics arrived and found Klein unresponsive on the kitchen floor, they noticed a one-gallon resealable bag containing white powder that Ferrante told them contained creatine. Doctors pronounced Klein dead on April 20. Klein's mother, Lois Klein, told police Ferrante told doctors repeatedly he thought his wife collapsed because of the fertility medicine.

A search warrant dated July 2 requesting records from the Center for Organ Recovery and Education said Klein's organs were harvested by C.O.R.E. and “thereafter transplanted.”

Ferrante faces one count of homicide and is being held without bond in Allegheny County Jail.

Downtown attorney Wendy L. Williams on Wednesday joined Bill Difenderfer in representing Ferrante.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning permitted Difenderfer to send a private investigator to the jail to talk to his client. Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini did not object.

A pre-trial conference is scheduled Dec. 6, during which both sides said they might be able to set a trial date.

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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