The world will miss Autumn Klein

Was this a case of a jealous husband, or is there a one-armed man out there?


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Those of us who write obituaries sometimes come away wishing we had known the deceased because they lived interesting lives, accomplished important goals or were held in high regard.

When I did the obit for Autumn Klein in April, though, I came away feeling sick about the loss of such a brilliant young doctor. It was a huge setback for an area of medicine that she basically pioneered and an incalculable loss for her child, who would grow up motherless.

Dr. Klein, 41, was in the forefront of treating women with neurological diseases such as epilepsy. It was a field with very few experts and she was fast emerging as the go-to specialist as well as a caring doctor who really helped her patients.

She had been recruited to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 2011 to be chief of the division of women's neurology. Recruited with her was her husband, Robert J. Ferrante, 64, a leading researcher in ALS and Huntington's disease, who become a Pitt professor of neurological surgery.

Dr. Klein's shocking death, following a collapse at home in Oakland, was called "an irreplaceable loss" by Robert Friedlander, chairman of neurological surgery at UPMC, who recruited her and her husband.

"She was looking for people to train and expand the field. Now we've lost that," added Lawrence Wechsler, chairman of the neurology department at UPMC.

Within weeks of her mysterious death, the Allegheny County medical examiner announced the cause was cyanide poisoning, a very rare occurrence. Mr. Ferrante now stands charged with criminal homicide and is being held without bond in the Allegheny County Jail. He has pleaded not guilty. A hearing is set for Sept. 23 to decide if there is enough evidence for trial.

Police say Mr. Ferrante had an assistant order the purest cyanide available, that it was delivered to his lab two days before Dr. Klein died, and that the amount later found missing was enough to kill someone many times over.

If years of watching police procedurals on TV have left American audiences with any impression, "It's always the husband" would be at the top of the list. Viewers have become quick to finger the fictional villain, pointing at the screen within minutes to announce "He did it," and then watching as the circle tightens around the perpetrator -- who is not always the husband after all.

But life is not a television drama. Dr. Klein's husband is considered innocent until proven guilty under the law. However the case unfolds, his life will never be the same. Nor will that of the couple's 6-year-old daughter, who is in the custody of her mother's parents. Because their daughter is a potential witness, her father is barred from contacting her.

Following Dr. Klein's sudden collapse at home, the city watched in horrified fascination as details emerged. Everywhere I went, civilians were speculating. Almost nobody I knew was buying suicide, but jealousy -- personal and professional -- came up again and again.

Once the cyanide came to light, many observers couldn't believe an intelligent man and researcher would think he could get away with such a thing. There had to be some other explanation.

But the fact remains that Mr. Ferrante had his wife's body cremated in short order, and if the medical team hadn't taken blood samples the poison could have gone undetected.

Last week, Post-Gazette reporters Paula Reed Ward and Liz Navratil detailed just how extraordinary the circumstances of the detection were. If any of several things had not happened, the cyanide might never have been discovered

For one thing, according to police, Mr. Ferrante told paramedics to take his wife to UPMC Shadyside hospital, falsely claiming her parents were there. Shadyside is not a trauma center, but UPMC Presbyterian Hospital is, and is also much closer to the couple's house. Medics took her to Presby anyway -- which has equipment that Shadyside lacks, allowing doctors to keep her alive longer.

For another, cyanide is a fast-acting poison and victims are likely to be dead by the time they reach an emergency room. Its effect is to suffocate a person, causing sounds of respiratory distress. According to an affidavit of probable cause, Dr. Klein could be heard groaning in the background of the 911 call.

We have yet to hear Mr. Ferrante's side of the story. But based on numerous interviews, police have said he believed his wife was having an affair and intended to leave him; that he insisted on going with her to conferences out of town. They also said Dr. Klein felt smothered and told friends she wanted out of the marriage.

Yet she also wanted another child and had texted her husband that she would be ovulating. He told police that he got his wife to take creatine, a dietary supplement often used by bodybuilders or to increase fertility, although several people familiar with the substance said they had never heard of that use before.

Was the cyanide inside the creatine? Was this a case of a husband so jealous and controlling that he'd rather kill his wife than let her leave him? Or is there a one-armed man out there, guilty of committing the crime but flying under the radar?

There's no way of knowing what surprises may emerge as the case proceeds. What won't change is that Autumn Klein is dead. What a terrible loss. What a waste. What a crime.

sallykalson

Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610). First Published August 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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