An Auburn woman who in 1988 was sentenced to 90 years in prison in a product-tampering case that left two dead and prompted national recalls of over-the-counter drugs has filed a petition for compassionate release from federal prison.
Stella Nickell was convicted after police and FBI agents, following months of investigation, concluded she had laced her husband’s Excedrin painkillers with cyanide in order to collect on his insurance, then planted poisoned pills in stores to throw off investigators.
Nickell, who is now 78 and has served 34 years in prison, said in a handwritten petition filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle that her health is failing.
Her husband, Bruce Nickell, collapsed at home in 1986 at the age of 42 after taking several Excedrin tablets for a headache, according to news accounts. He died, as did an Auburn woman, Sue Snow, who apparently picked up a bottle of the tainted tablets from a grocery store, according to news reports and court records.
Records show agents found five contaminated bottles of medicine during a search of Auburn-area grocery stores and pharmacies, prompting widespread recalls of over-the-counter analgesics in the Northwest and elsewhere as health officials and the FBI sought to uncover the source of the poison.
The poisonings resulted in widespread public anxiety, as they came just five years after seven people died in Chicago from poisoned Tylenol capsules, leading to the law under which Nickell was convicted.
The Chicago deaths remain unsolved.
Documents show the Federal Parole Commission denied Nickell parole in 2017 — the first time she was eligible — and recommended she serve the remainder of her sentence.
Her petition, filed in the court of U.S. District Judge James Robart, says that the warden at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., also denied her plea for release last June, stating she is ineligible for parole.
Nickell argued that federal rules make her eligible for release after serving one-third of her sentence, which is set to end in July 2040, when she’s served two-thirds of her full sentence and is 96 years old, according to her pleadings.
Federal inmates can receive credit for time served without discipline, which can knock years off their original sentences.
Nickell said in her petition that she “has several health issues relating to her elderly age” and that the Federal Bureau of Prisons can’t provide her the medical care she needs.
She said she has been a model inmate, with just two minor infractions in more than 34 years of incarceration, and that the director of the Bureau of Prisons has determined she is not a danger to the community.
“There is no proven, or even ‘reasonable,’ probability that I will commit another offense when paroled,” she wrote. “I am 78 years old and this is my first time in prison. I have always respected the officers and staff.”
Nickell maintained her innocence during trial and through her appeals, but her petition casts those claims aside.
“I am accused of ‘not knowing the moral wrong I committed,’” she wrote. “Nobody knows better than I the depth of my heinous offense and how deeply it goes against the ‘accepted standards of conduct.’ I am most remorseful for being responsible for the loss of two human lives.”
Nickell has made arrangements to live with a friend in Las Vegas if she’s released, according to documents filed with her motion.
Thomas Hillier, who defended Nickell at trial and served more than 30 years as the district’s chief Federal Public Defender, believes Nickell should be released.
“I truly hope that someone gives her a chance,” he said. “She’s done her time.”