Documents show computer evidence in poisoning case

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In the hours after police questioned Robert Ferrante and told the University of Pittsburgh researcher his wife died from cyanide poisoning, someone used a laptop computer in his possession to search online whether a machine used to treat his wife in the hospital would have removed toxins from her body.

Mr. Ferrante, 65, is charged with killing his wife, Autumn Klein, 41, in April. She was the head of women's neurology for UPMC and collapsed in her Oakland home the night of April 17. She died three days later.

According to an application for a search warrant unsealed Friday, the Google search was conducted on the laptop at 9:32 p.m. on April 25. That afternoon, around 1 p.m., Pittsburgh homicide detectives interviewed Mr. Ferrante about what happened to his wife.

Researcher accused of killing wife appears at hearing

Robert Ferrante, the University of Pittsburgh researcher accused of killing his wife with cyanide, has agreed to provide a DNA sample to the prosecution. (Video by Paula Reed Ward; 1/10/2014)

"When asked if he knew the cause of his wife's death, Ferrante stated he heard it was from either a brain condition or a heart attack," according to the affidavit of probable cause. "When detectives informed Ferrante that Klein died from cyanide poisoning, his initial comment was 'Why would she do that to herself?' Ferrante then stated: 'Who would do this to her?' "

The affidavit goes on to say that in a recent examination of the laptop, found with Mr. Ferrante at the time of his arrest, detectives discovered a Google search from 81/2 hours later for the phrase "would ecmo or dialysis remove traces of toxins poisons."

ECMO stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation -- a blood circulation system that supplies oxygen to the blood for patients whose heart and lungs are severely damaged and no longer functioning, the filing said. At UPMC Presbyterian, where Klein was taken, she was kept alive, at least in part, by being placed on ECMO.

When paramedics were called to the Ferrante home on April 17, he requested his wife be transported to UPMC Shadyside, which is not a trauma center and does not have ECMO technology.

Detective Lyle M. Graber, who filed the warrant, said that among the data being sought from Google "is evidence regarding the means, research, planning, motive, commission and/or the identification and/or defendant's collaboration with others."

Pitt law professor John Burkoff said the information about the search "doesn't help" Mr. Ferrante.

"Certainly, information like that makes you think, naturally, he must be guilty, but we just haven't heard his story yet," Mr. Burkoff said.

There is a gag order in the case, and defense attorneys cited it on Friday when they refused to answer questions.

"It's true the more circumstantial evidence we learn about ... gives him a lot higher hurdle to jump over," Mr. Burkoff said.

Another warrant unsealed Friday sought chemicals and records from Mr. Ferrante's lab in Pitt's Scaife Hall. Specifically, Detective Graber was looking for all "3-NP (nitropropanoic acid) chemicals and containers" used in Mr. Ferrante's research projects in 2012 and 2013.

According to the affidavit, Detective Graber interviewed Mr. Ferrante's research assistant Dec. 10. During the interview, the assistant "asked if the lab had tested Klein's blood for a toxin '3-NP' during or after the autopsy."

The 3-NP, the assistant said, is a neurotoxin "that could make someone appear tired and sick."

Mr. Ferrante asked his assistant to order the chemical for use in their Huntingdon's disease studies three times between March and April, the affidavit said. Further, Mr. Ferrante told his assistant that what they had previously used lost its potency.

A number of journal publications found online, ranging across a period of several years, show Mr. Ferrante as an author of papers addressing 3-NP treatment.

Also Friday, Mr. Ferrante appeared in court briefly to address a number of motions, including whether he should provide a DNA sample. Assistant district attorney Lisa Pellegrini told the court it would be used as a reference sample to compare to bottles of different toxins seized from Mr. Ferrante's lab.

The defense consented.

Also Friday, defense attorney William Difenderfer told Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning he was contemplating filing a motion for a change of venue, which would seek to move Mr. Ferrante's trial out of Allegheny County.

Mr. Burkoff said it's hard to get a change of venue.

"It's expensive," he said. "Judges aren't willing to do it unless it's really necessary."

It was expected that Judge Manning would also rule on two additional defense motions -- one seeking to unfreeze Mr. Ferrante's assets to provide him additional money toward his criminal defense; and another seeking permission for his adult children to visit with his minor daughter.

Because both of those issues were previously ruled upon by Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman, Judge Manning deferred both to Judge Cashman.

In August Judge Cashman froze about $2.5 million held by Mr. Ferrante, leaving him about $280,000 to be used in his case.

Paula Reed Ward: or 412-263-2620. First Published January 10, 2014 12:20 PM

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