Auburn woman behind deadly cyanide-laced painkillers wants out of federal prison

It’s a notorious case out of Auburn — a woman convicted of lacing Excedrin painkillers with cyanide that killed two people in 1986, including her husband.

Stella Nickell was sentenced to federal prison for 90 years.

This week, the now-78-year-old woman filed a petition to be released from prison because of medical reasons.

At the time, the story sparked a nationwide recall of Excedrin pills and caused panic across the country. Then, investigators found out that Stella Nickell planted the deadly pills at multiple stores.

Now, decades later, in court documents filed this week, Nickell is admitting her guilt and asking to be released from federal prison.

“Such a tragedy. Just such an unreal thing to do,” said Debra Kolkow, a longtime Auburn resident.

People in South King County still clearly recall the troubling summer. In June 1986, two people in Auburn were killed by Excedrin painkillers dosed with cyanide. KIRO 7, reporting from the time, says the incident triggered a nationwide recall of the capsules, confiscation of all capsules in King County, and a 90-day ban of all non-prescription capsules across Washington.

FBI investigators eventually found out that Nickell poisoned the capsules to kill her husband, Bruce Nickell. They also learned she planted bottles with cyanide-tainted pills at multiple shops, including a Pay ‘N Save in Auburn and a Johnny’s grocery store in Kent.

A random victim, 40-year-old Sue Snow of Auburn, bought one of those bottles of headache medication. She ended up taking a lethal dose of poison. KIRO 7 reported at the time that Snow’s husband also took pills from that same bottle, but missed the laced capsules.

The poisoning was discovered after a medical examiner smelled “bitter almonds” during an autopsy of Snow, a telltale sign of cyanide.

Initially, people blamed the drug manufacturers; but eventually, investigators also found a home aquarium purifier product in the laced pills — something that was also discovered at Nickell’s home. Investigators also found circumstantial evidence of Nickell purchasing extra life insurance for her husband.

Nickell was convicted of tampering with consumer products in 1988 and sentenced to 90 years in federal prison. So far, she has served more than 30 years.

On May 7, 2022, Stella Nickell submitted a handwritten letter to the U.S. District Court in Seattle, petitioning for early release. She says because of health issues related to her age, “the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) cannot provide her with the medical care that she needs.” She wrote, “I believe I qualify for compassionate release.”

KIRO7′s Deedee Sun reached out to her public defender at the time, Thomas Hillier. Hillier says he understands both sides, but does see the argument for her release.

“She’s done a significant amount of time and so she has been significantly punished for a very severe crime. Now she’s no longer a threat to society and I think importantly, also, she has acknowledged her culpability,” Hillier said over the phone.

He said to his knowledge, the letter just filed in federal court is the first time Nickell is admitting to the crimes.

Nickell wrote in her petition, “I am now mentally and emotionally cognizant of the immoral heinous act I committed … I truly and sincerely regret being responsible for the loss of those two precious lives. I pray for forgiveness. There is nothing in this life that can or will cause me to commit another crime.”

Some Auburn residents also believe it’s time.

“I’m hoping she gets out,” Kolkow said. If Hiller is released, she said in court documents she has plans to stay with a friend in Las Vegas.

KIRO7 also reached out to author Gregg Olsen to get his thoughts. He wrote a book about the case titled “Bitter Almonds: The True Story of Mothers, Daughters, and the Seattle Cyanide Murders.”

Olsen said in an email:

“A spokesperson for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said murder cases have no statute of limitations. So if Nickell is released, they would just need the federal investigators to refer the murder case to them to proceed.”

As far as how likely it is for Nickell to be released, the U.S. Attorney’s office told KIRO 7 they believe there is a legal error with Nickell’s petition and that the compassionate release situation doesn’t apply to her case. That’s because crimes committed before 1987 fall under a previous law that would require the Bureau of Prisons to file the petition. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle says it’s received no such petition.

KIRO7 reached out to the family of victim Sue Snow, but did not immediately hear back.