FBI assists probe of UPMC doctor's cyanide death

| Saturday, May 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The FBI is lending scientific expertise to Pittsburgh police investigating the death of a UPMC doctor who had lethal amounts of cyanide in her blood, an FBI spokeswoman said on Friday.

“It's because cyanide is the cause of death, and we have a lot of scientific resources that can assist and support the investigation,” FBI spokeswoman Kelly Kochamba said.

The agency has testing facilities available, but Kochamba declined to say how the FBI will help police investigating the April 20 death of Dr. Autumn Marie Klein, 41.

Klein walked home from work April 17 and collapsed at the Schenley Farms home she shared with her husband, Dr. Robert Ferrante, 64, and their daughter, Cianna, 6. Police confirmed on Wednesday that she had well above a lethal amount of cyanide in her system when she died in UPMC Presbyterian.

City homicide detectives and FBI agents armed with a warrant searched the couple's Lytton Avenue home on Friday night.

A few bags of items were removed from the house and two vehicles were towed.

Police Lt. Kevin Kraus, acting commander of the city's investigations unit, said he could not comment on the search.

Allegheny County Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams declined to comment on Friday.

“Everything is under consideration now,” Williams said. “There are theories.”

Dr. Fred Fochtman, director of the Wecht Institute and the forensic program at Duquesne University, said he could remember a case from as long as 30 years ago in which a man drank whiskey that was laced with cyanide, but he could not recall if it was a homicide or a suicide. Fochtman said cyanide tests are not routine.

“You have to have some indication,” Fochtman said. “I don't think there's going to be any outward physical signs unless someone smelled her breath — there's that (cyanide) characteristic of almond odor. Other than that, who is going to think of running a cyanide test?”

UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps declined to comment.

Klein was chief of women's neurology at UPMC and an assistant professor of neurology, obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. She treated pregnant women with neurological problems such as headaches and seizures and was recruited to Pittsburgh by the chairman of neurological surgery in 2011.

Ferrante became co-director of the Center for ALS Research and a visiting professor of neurological surgery at Pitt. He spent more than 20 years at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, according to his online biography. He could not be reached for comment.

Stephen George, a professor of biology and neuroscience at Amherst College in Massachusetts, has known Ferrante for about a decade. He said Ferrante moved to Pittsburgh to support Klein.

“He gave up his huge research presence in the Boston area and established his lab in Pittsburgh,” George said.

He said Ferrante, who has two older children, was delighted when Cianna was born.

“He seemed to be like the perfect father and family man,” George said.

Dr. Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist, confirmed that he has been retained as a consultant in the case but declined to say by whom. He said he could not recall any criminal poisoning cases from his time as the Allegheny County coroner.

“You would think, frankly, that such a case would be the kind of case you would remember,” Wecht said.

Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Staff writers Michael Hasch and Adam Smeltz contributed to this report.

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