Pitt researcher arrested in cyanide poisoning death of his wife, a UPMC doctor

Man accused of killing wife had suspected affair

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The University of Pittsburgh researcher charged Thursday with killing his wife with cyanide believed she was cheating on him.

Autumn Klein, who was chief of the division of women's neurology at UPMC, told at least one friend more than two months before her death of her husband's allegations and that she planned to leave Robert Ferrante.

Instead, on April 17, Klein, 41, received a lethal dose of cyanide -- the same type of poison ordered by Mr. Ferrante and shipped overnight to his lab just two days earlier.

Those details were included in a lengthy affidavit of probable cause released Thursday afternoon by the Allegheny County district attorney's office.

Pittsburgh police detectives traveled Thursday to St. Augustine, Fla., where Mr. Ferrante, 64, had been visiting his sister with his 6-year-old daughter since earlier in the month.

However, he was not at the home when officers arrived.

According to the DA's office, Mr. Ferrante's attorney, William Difenderfer, advised his client of the arrest warrant early Thursday and told the man to leave Florida.

Late Thursday, Mr. Difenderfer was angry at how the DA's office characterized his actions.

He said he contacted his client at 5:30 a.m. Thursday to inform him an arrest was imminent, and he needed to return to Pittsburgh to turn himself in.

"This was so over the top and unnecesary," Mr. Difenderfer said of the arrest procedures. "It's ridiculous."

The attorney said he contacted Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini at 8 a.m. to find out if a warrant had been issued for his client. She refused to answer, he said, and so Mr. Difenderfer chose not to tell her that his client was on the road to Pittsburgh.

"We're innocent. We're facing this stuff. Give me the courtesy of a phone call," he said, noting that Mr. Ferrante had already surrendered his passport.

Mr. Difenderfer further questioned the procedures used in Florida. He said approximately 17 officers arrived at the home of Mr. Ferrante's sister, armed with rifles.

"They wasted a lot of taxpayer money."

But DA spokesman Mike Manko said because of the seriousness of the charge and Mr. Ferrante's financial means a national law enforcement alert was broadcast.

When Ms. Pellegrini learned Mr. Ferrante had left Florida, she called Mr. Difenderfer and accused him of assisting a fugitive, he said. However, after some discussion, she agreed to allow his client to turn himself in at his law office.

But before that could happen, the West Virginia state police were already putting the arrest in motion, Mr. Difenderfer said.

"He calls me, 'There's police all around me. No lights on yet. Oh my God, Bill, there's a bunch of them.' I told him, 'just pull over.'"

The DA's office was notified Thursday evening that Mr. Ferrante and his silver Hyundai Sonata were located near Beckley, W.Va. Pittsburgh police Lt. Kevin Kraus said troopers there stopped traffic at a toll plaza on Interstate 77 just before 7 p.m. and executed a rolling road block, pulling the suspect over at gunpoint.

Mr. Ferrante, who was alone in the car, is charged with a single count of criminal homicide.

Prosecutors will now work with their counterparts in West Virginia to extradite Mr. Ferrante back to Pittsburgh.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said in a statement that custody of the couple's daughter has been placed with Klein's parents and that all of Mr. Ferrante's financial assets have been frozen.

According to a Pitt spokesman, Mr. Ferrante has been denied access to his lab since the investigation focused on him, and on Thursday was placed on immediate and indefinite leave.

The detailed affidavit, signed Wednesday by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman, shows that Mr. Ferrante believed his wife had been having an affair.

During a conference in San Francisco in February, Klein told a friend that she planned to leave her husband, and that Mr. Ferrante provided no support for her work or their daughter.

Further the friend told investigators that during the conference, Klein received a text message from her husband that he was going to join her in San Francisco.

"The victim told Witness No. 6 that this was not Ferrante being romantic, but rather his controlling nature," the affidavit said.

The witness also received a text message from Klein on April 13, the affidavit said, in which she told him her husband was going to join her on an upcoming trip to Boston.

Klein wrote that Mr. Ferrante told her he'd accompany her "'to keep me out of trouble,'" she wrote.

Her friend replied, "'Oh, dear. Did not know you were in trouble.' The victim replied, 'I feel like I have been for a while now.' "

The document goes on to say that Mr. Ferrante confronted Klein three times in the weeks before her death about a possible extramarital relationship.

Klein collapsed in the couple's Oakland home late the night of April 17. She was pronounced dead three days later.

According to the affidavit of probable cause, Mr. Ferrante, a neuroscientist, asked a member of his staff at his lab responsible for purchasing chemicals and materials on April 15 for assistance in buying cyanide.

He asked for the "best and purest cyanide he could get" to be delivered the next day, the witness said.

In addition, the affidavit continued, Mr. Ferrante asked that the chemical be purchased using a separate credit card not typically used in the lab.

A witness told investigators that particular card is a "last choice for purchases" and that it was the first time Mr. Ferrante had used it. Out of 145 chemicals bought by the lab, the only one purchased not related to a project or grant was the cyanide.

The same day the chemical arrived, another person in the lab witnessed Mr. Ferrante obtain a large container of creatine, measure it, mix it with water and sucrose and then drink it.

Early on April 17, Mr. Ferrante asked the witness to measure out more of the creatine, and they then placed it in a bag.

That day, according to the report, Mr. Ferrante and Klein exchanged text messages in which she said she would begin ovulating the next day.

Mr. Ferrante told her to take creatine.

"I'm serious," he texted. "It will make a huge difference. I certain of it."

When paramedics arrived at the couple's home to treat Klein the night she collapsed, according to the affidavit, they noted a 1-gallon resealable plastic bag containing a white substance along with a small glass vial in the kitchen, where Klein was found on the floor.

"Ferrante told paramedics that the bag contained the substance creatine," according to the affidavit. "Paramedics did not ask, and Ferrante did not elaborate what was in the glass vial."

Out of the 250 grams of cyanide purchased by Mr. Ferrante in the lab, approximately 8.3 grams were missing when it was measured by the medical examiner's lab, the paperwork said.

The affidavit also goes into great detail describing Mr. Ferrante's call to 911, as well as his demeanor at the hospital while his wife was being treated.

During the call, Mr. Ferrante requested she be taken to UPMC Shadyside and claimed that "her folks are down at Shadyside, maybe that would be the best place to take her," even though Klein's parents live in Maryland and were there at the time.

One person identified in the affidavit as Witness No. 1, who was present at the hospital the first night, said that Mr. Ferrante's reaction when he initially saw his wife on the exam table "seemed fake and like 'bad acting.' " The witness also noted that Mr. Ferrante spoke about Klein in the past tense while the physicians were actively treating her.

Multiple people interviewed noted Mr. Ferrante repeatedly said he did not want an autopsy, and that it was unnecessary.

Later, when Klein's mother insisted, he said he believed his wife died from fertility drugs.

The day after Klein's body was released to the funeral home, Mr. Ferrante had it cremated, the affidavit said. Klein's mother also told investigators that her son-in-law did not attend a memorial service for his wife in Maryland.

Allegheny County medical examiner Karl Williams on Thursday announced his office had ruled the death a homicide.

He determined the manner of Klein's death "based primarily on the result of a blood sample obtained before her death, during her care at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and in which the cyanide level in the blood was found to be in the lethal range.

"This finding was not reported to UPMC from an outside reference laboratory until after her death and also until after her autopsy had been performed."

Determining manner of death, he continued, was more complex because of additional laboratory testing as well as investigation by authorities.

As to whether Klein's death could have been suicide, investigators went to great lengths in the affidavit to explain why it had been ruled out: In the hours and days before her collapse, Klein was making both short- and long-term plans, including going on a camping trip with a friend, traveling to Washington to meet relatives and meeting colleagues in Boston in May.

"It was learned that the victim's career was on the rise and she was becoming a well-known doctor in her field. It was described to investigators that the victim was very passionate about her work and deeply cared for her patients," the affidavit said. "She was not described by any witness as having suicidal tendencies."

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Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published July 25, 2013 8:00 PM


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