Spouse in poisoning faced huge fiscal loss

| Sunday, Aug. 11, 2013, 10:10 p.m.

A University of Pittsburgh researcher accused of fatally poisoning his wife might have lost a significant portion of his retirement savings had she divorced him, said lawyers who reviewed the couple's assets.

Robert Ferrante, 64, remains jailed without bail, awaiting a Sept. 23 hearing. He can use only a small portion of his assets for his legal defense. Most of his money, frozen by court order, will support a daughter who cannot visit him.

Police accuse Ferrante of lacing an energy drink with cyanide to kill Autumn Marie Klein, 41, a prominent UPMC neurologist who died April 20.

“Depending on how much money he brought to the marriage, she certainly would have walked away with a good chunk of his money,” said Candice L. Komar, an attorney with Pollock Begg Komar & Vertz, Downtown, which specializes in family law. “Maybe he's thinking ‘I already went through a divorce.' ”

Ferrante pleaded not guilty when arraigned on a homicide charge July 30. His attorney, William Difenderfer, has said Ferrante “adamantly” denies involvement in his wife's death. The couple amassed assets totaling $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 the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office compiled.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman has imposed a gag order on attorneys in the case. Cashman froze all but $280,000 of Ferrante's assets and placed his daughter, Cienna, 6, with her grandparents, Lois, 78, and Bill Klein, 76, of Towson, Md.

Assuming Ferrante had half of his $2.5 million in assets when he and Klein wed in May 2001, an equitable split likely would have forced him to transfer $440,000 — including half the value of the house — to Klein, Komar said. That way each person would get $1.075 million, or half the marital assets, she calculated.

Ferrante would have exited the marriage with about $2.3 million and Klein with about $1.075 million, Komar said.

Though their salaries weren't made public, Klein was chief of the Division of Women's Neurology and assistant professor of neurology and obstetrics and gynecology at UPMC Presbyterian and Magee-Womens Hospital.

Her assumed ability to earn a living means a judge likely wouldn't have ordered Ferrante to pay alimony, but he might have had to pay child support if she gained sole or shared custody of their daughter in a divorce, Komar said.

“Given what he had, if he had to pay her half, that would devastate him,” she said.

Money “is certainly sufficient motive” for prosecutors to present to a jury, said Wesley Oliver, director of the criminal justice program at Duquesne University School of Law.

“There are ways other than motive to prove first-degree murder, but motive is a way to do it,” Oliver said. “Proof of motive certainly helps the prosecution's case.”

Ferrante, considered a leading researcher on the neurological disease ALS, known as Lou Gehrig's disease, spent more than 20 years at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. He and Klein met while she was a student where he worked at the VA Hospital in Bedford, Mass.

They married in Boston on May 18, 2001, his second marriage. They moved to Pittsburgh when the University of Pittsburgh recruited Ferrante and UPMC recruited Klein.

Ferrante is on indefinite leave from Pitt, spokesman John Fedele said.

A witness told police that Klein planned to leave Ferrante, who repeatedly accused her of having an affair. The witness, identified in a criminal complaint as Witness #6, told police that Klein complained that Ferrante “did not give her any support with her job or their daughter.”

It's unclear whether Klein took any steps to leave him.

Ferrante bought cyanide with a Pitt credit card on April 15 and had it shipped overnight to his laboratory, police say. On April 17, he called 911 to say Klein had collapsed at home; paramedics found her unresponsive on the kitchen floor. She died three days later in UPMC Presbyterian.

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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