Investigation into Pittsburgh cyanide death includes white-collar crime experts

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While trying to determine how UPMC physician Autumn Klein encountered a toxic amount of cyanide before she died, Pittsburgh police have called upon resources not typically used in less complex death investigations.

Assistant district attorney Lawrence Claus is working the case in conjunction with the district attorney's homicide office. His cases, which recently included prosecuting the political corruption charges against three Orie sisters, often include mountains of paperwork that must be sifted through, reviewed and cataloged.

Officials have released few details about their probe into the death of Dr. Klein, chief of women's neurology at UPMC, except to say that they were looking at it as either a homicide or a suicide. Dr. Klein died in UPMC Presbyterian on April 20, three days after she collapsed inside the family home.

In addition to Mr. Claus, the FBI has provided at least one agent who works in its weapons of mass destruction program, the same group that proactively contacts universities, labs and private companies in hopes that they will learn to report suspicious attempts to buy dangerous chemicals, such as cyanide.

Pittsburgh homicide detectives requested documents pertaining to both Dr. Klein's private practice and cyanide at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, which employs her husband, Robert J. Ferrante. They also searched the couple's home and removed a computer and vacuum cleaners and they towed away cars.

William Difenderfer, a criminal defense attorney who has been retained by Mr. Ferrante, said he and his client are in a waiting period and hope charges will not be filed against Mr. Ferrante.

The presence of white-collar crime investigators in a death investigation is somewhat unusual, said those familiar with the mechanics of such cases, because homicide detectives tend to be some of the more veteran members of a police force and tend to have skills in many areas.

"The people who do white-collar crime investigations are typically following some kind of paper trail," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris. "This is a type of forensic work that is not always about lab forensics, but it's about following the evidence and knowing how to follow the activity of a business or an organization or a person through documents and accounts and pluses and minuses."

Documents might provide investigators with clues as to who had access to certain substances or about the backgrounds, financial or otherwise, of those associated with a case, said former federal prosecutor and defense attorney Bruce Antkowiak.

"I think in almost every case that you can imagine," he said, "that the purpose for bringing in a white-collar investigator has something to do with motive."

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Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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