C A I T L I N  R O T H E R


Sample chapter from POISONED LOVE:

Chapter 1

It was a Monday morning, November 6, 2000, when Stefan Gruenwald pulled up to the building his small biotech company shared with three others. He was surprised to see that his licensing manager wasn’t at his desk, making calls.

Typically, Greg de Villers had already started his day by the time his boss arrived. He was a dependable guy. Meticulous, diligent and a team player to boot. Gruenwald had known Greg since he’d hired him several years earlier at another biotech company. After Gruenwald left to start his own business, he lured Greg away to work for him. Greg was one of only eight employees at Orbigen, so it didn’t take long for Gruenwald to poke his head in each office to ask if anyone had seen Greg that morning. They hadn’t. Greg was rarely late, and when he was, he always called to let Gruenwald know. He’d never missed a day of work without calling.

Gruenwald wondered if Greg was having car problems. Maybe he’d broken down somewhere. Greg had no cell phone, so around 10:10 a.m., Gruenwald called the apartment in the San Diego neighborhood of University City, where Greg lived with Kristin Rossum, his pretty, petite blond wife of seventeen months. He let it ring for a while. But no one picked up.

Although Greg tended not to socialize with his coworkers after hours, he did drink a Coke or a beer with them at the occasional TGIF gatherings, and Gruenwald had worked with him long enough to feel that he knew Greg pretty well. Greg had good manners and was liked by his colleagues, who thought he was a nice guy and a bit of a health nut. He’d gone on a fishing trip with them to Mexico once but said he was anxious to get home to Kristin rather than go out for drinks on the way back. She, his two brothers, and the small circle of close friends he’d made over the years were the people with whom he liked to spend his spare time.

Greg wasn’t the kind of outgoing guy who got noticed in a crowd for his strong personality. He was more of an easygoing, middle-of-the-road kind of guy, a little on the shy side around new people and somewhat soft spoken. Kristin, on the other hand, had more of an allure, especially when it came to men. Greg really seemed to be in love with her, always rushing home to eat one of her special dinners and watch a video. The only time Gruenwald had seen Greg stay late at the office was the week in early October, when Kristin went to a conference in Milwaukee. Kristin worked as a toxicologist at the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, where she conducted tests to determine what drugs may have caused suspicious or sudden deaths.

Gruenwald met Kristin at a company Christmas party before she and Greg were married in June 1999, and they’d all gone out for drinks afterwards. She seemed nice. A little flirtatious, but funny, outgoing, and very intelligent. She and Greg seemed to get along well and they looked good together. Recently, Greg had asked Gruenwald to keep an ear out for a new job for Kristin. He’d also talked about having Orbigen help him go to law school so he could become a patent attorney for the company. In a year or two, once Orbigen got off the ground, Gruenwald told him, "We can definitely do that."

When Greg still hadn’t shown up by eleven o’clock, office manager Terry Huang was getting concerned as well. Nearly three hours late without calling – it was so unlike Greg. Huang tried reaching him at his apartment around 11:15 but got no answer. It just rang and rang. Huang and Gruenwald shared their unease a few hours later and tried calling Greg again from Huang’s office. Still no response.

By this point, Gruenwald was worried enough to wonder whether he should go over there. Greg lived only ten minutes away. But he got lost in his work and never made it out of the office. Kristin Rossum

By 5 p.m., Gruenwald figured Greg must’ve had a family emergency. The previous week, he’d worked a half-day on Thursday so he could deal with a family problem, and he left a little early on Friday to meet up with his in-laws. Maybe the problem had gotten out of hand. Greg also hadn’t been feeling well the week before. The previous Monday morning, he came to the office feeling crummy and told a coworker that he’d thrown up after drinking only a couple of beers that weekend. Not to mention he seemed unusually agitated all week. Especially on Friday.

At 5:40 p.m., Huang and Gruenwald huddled together and tried calling Greg again on the speakerphone. There was still no answer. They were quite befuddled.

Huang tried once more around 7 p.m., just before leaving the office, and this time Kristin picked up. He asked to speak to Greg, but Kristin said he was sleeping. Huang asked if everything was all right, because Greg hadn’t come to work that day. Kristin said she’d phoned Orbigen that morning and left a message saying Greg wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be coming in. Didn’t they get it? She apologized if no one received the message. Kristin thanked him for calling and hung up.

The call left Huang feeling uneasy. He sensed a strange edge to Kristin’s voice. She seemed unresponsive, like she wanted to get off the phone. He wondered why she wouldn’t let him talk to Greg. Why, if Greg was home all day, didn’t he pick up the phone? And why didn’t anyone at Orbigen get the message Kristin said she left?

Gruenwald called Greg’s apartment once more as well, around 9:30 p.m. A frazzled Kristin answered on the first ring. She was crying, and he could hardly understand her.

"Greg isn’t feeling well and the ambulance is here. I really can’t talk," she said. "I’ll call you back."

Gruenwald waited until 1 a.m. to hear back from her. Still troubled, he finally gave up and went to bed.

* * *

Paramedic Sean Jordan and his assistant, April Butler, had just finished a quick dinner at Rubio’s, a fish taco restaurant, when they got a call at 9:23 p.m.: young male down, not breathing and no pulse. They were only a mile or two from the address on Regents Road. With the ambulance siren blaring and red lights flashing, they sped down Torrey Pines Road and arrived three minutes later.

The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) had purchased the La Jolla Del Sol complex about a year earlier as off-campus housing, so the 911 call went first to the campus police dispatch center.

"My husband is not breathing," Kristin told the dispatcher.

The UCSD dispatcher transferred Kristin to the city of San Diego’s fire-medical dispatcher, who stayed on the phone with her until the paramedics were inside her apartment. The Del Sol security guard was also alerted about the 911 call, so he’d already opened the gate for Jordan and Butler by the time they pulled up to the red-tiled driveway.

Balconies with gray railings lined the mocha-colored buildings of Del Sol, which blended into the sea of residential towers in north University City, a densely populated neighborhood of college students and young professionals who worked at UCSD or the biotech, high-tech, and finance companies nearby. The area, dubbed "the Golden Triangle" because it was contained by three intersecting freeways, had grown up first around the university and then, during the late 1970s, around University Towne Center, a shopping mall. Apartment or condo complexes sprang up and filled up, followed by office and medical buildings, restaurants, bars and gyms, until virtually every lot was developed. Many of the local professors, doctors, lawyers, and real estate developers lived a couple of miles to the west in the older and more affluent coastal community of La Jolla.

Jordan and Butler carried their gear up the stairs to the second-floor apartment, where they found Kristin standing in the living room, crying and talking to the dispatcher on a cordless phone. She motioned them to the bedroom, where Greg was lying on the floor, flat on his back and framed by an unmade, queen-size bed to the left, a chest of three long drawers to the right, and a taller six-drawer bureau above his head. His slim, six-foot, 160-pound body was dressed in pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. His skin was pale, and his lips were blue around the edges. Red rose petals were scattered on the carpet around his upper torso, with a single stem and stamen lying between his head, the bureau, and a princess phone. Jordan started setting up next to Greg’s left arm. Butler tripped over the comforter as she squeezed into position between Greg’s head and the bureau, setting aside an unframed wedding photo of the couple, which had been propped up against the base of the bureau, as if someone had positioned it just so.

Greg looked a little nervous in the photo. He smiled for the camera with a quiet contentment, all dressed up in his tuxedo and striped cravat, his dark brown hair slicked back and his blue eyes shining. Kristin looked radiant, her shiny blond locks pulled up under a white-flowered tiara, and a veil trailing down her back. She wore a string of pearls with her white dress, which had short lace sleeves that covered her shoulders, and she held a bouquet of pink and white flowers tied with bows of ribbon. They both seemed so very happy as Greg declared his supreme devotion to her in front of their friends and family.

In all the commotion, the wedding photo got moved to the top of the chest on Greg’s right side, next to a blue plastic cup of clear, odorless liquid that looked like water. An open bottle of aspirin that contained about a quarter of its original two hundred tablets sat atop the bureau behind Butler. And a yellow cup, also containing clear, odorless liquid, rested on a nightstand on the opposite side of the bed.

Several campus police officers arrived just before paramedic Joe Preciado rode up on a fire engine and joined Butler and Jordan in trying to resuscitate Greg. Apart from the fact that their twenty-six-year-old patient looked too young and healthy to have a heart attack from natural causes, something else seemed odd to Preciado. Initially, he thought the red blotches on the beige carpet were smudges of wet blood. But when he kneeled down on Greg’s right side, the smudges moved. He was dumbfounded. What were red rose petals doing all over the floor?

It was a scene right out of that movie, American Beauty, where Kevin Spacey is lying on his back in bed, fantasizing in a dreamlike state, and red rose petals slowly float down from the ceiling and cover his body.

Jordan checked for a pulse, but found none. Greg felt warm to the touch, as if he’d recently taken his last breath. Jordan took a quick scan of the bedroom, looking for clues to explain what Greg might have taken. But he saw no prescription pill vials, no syringes, no sign of illegal drug use, nothing that looked out of place and no suicide note. He and Preciado asked Kristin if her husband had any medical problems or was taking any medications.

"Not that I know of," she told them, though at one point she brought out a bottle of Vicodin from the bathroom.

Greg’s pupils were fixed and dilated, but Jordan was determined to make every effort to bring him back. Jordan intubated Greg, then Butler hooked up the breathing bag and rhythmically squeezed air into his lungs. The heart monitor registered a flat line. With Greg’s heart refusing to pump blood through his veins, Preciado tried but found it virtually impossible to get a needle into Greg’s right arm. Jordan had more luck with the other arm, though he had to try a couple times before he got the needle in.

Jordan tried everything in his drug box that might get Greg’s heart beating again. Atropine. Epinephrine. A pure sugar substance usually given to diabetics. And finally, 2 mg of Narcan, which reverses the effects of opiates, just in case Greg had overdosed on one. But nothing worked. Jordan rolled Greg’s body over to slide him onto a backboard for transport to the nearest hospital. That was when he saw the purple marks of lividity on Greg’s back and buttocks, a sign that the heart had ceased to beat and gravity was causing blood to pool in areas closest to the ground. There were no rose petals under his body.

At 10:03 p.m., Jordan and Butler carried their patient down the stairs to their ambulance and drove him to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, about four minutes away. One of the campus police officers followed, with Kristin in his cruiser. The emergency room doctor tried again to revive Greg, but he was gone. Greg was officially declared dead at 10:19 p.m., six days before his twenty-seventh birthday.

* * *

Kristin called her boss, a handsome, thirty-one-year-old Australian toxicologist, as soon as she got to the hospital and asked him to join her there. Two minutes later, she called her parents, crying. Her father answered the phone.

"Daddy, Greg stopped breathing," she said. "I’m so scared."

Ralph Rossum said he would meet her at the hospital as quickly as he could, handed the phone to his wife, Constance, and ran out to the car. Kristin spoke briefly to her mother, explaining that Greg was in intensive care.

Kristin’s boss, Michael Robertson, arrived at the hospital about fifteen minutes later. While they were in the waiting area together, he put his arm around her, comforted her, and held her hand. The nurses thought he seemed like a very supportive supervisor.

Kristin was still crying, but she was able to answer the ER nurse’s questions about Greg’s medical history and what drugs he might have taken. Kristin said he might have used some old prescriptions she’d purchased in Tijuana five years earlier when she’d been trying to get off crystal methamphetamine. Then, the nurse told her the bad news. They’d tried again to resuscitate her husband, but they couldn’t get him back.

Kristin’s mother got a call at 10:49 p.m. from Michael, who introduced himself as Kristin’s boss, and they talked for about ten minutes. He said Kristin was cold standing there in her pajamas, and he wondered what to do. Constance thanked him and suggested he drive Kristin back to the apartment. Kristin’s father was on his way down to meet her at the hospital, but he would figure out where to go.

After allowing the news of Greg’s death to settle in, a social worker approached Kristin about tissue donation. Greg had decided to join Kristin as an organ and tissue donor about two weeks earlier when he’d renewed his driver’s license, but because his heart had already stopped, his organs couldn’t be harvested. However, some of his skin could be used to help burn victims; his corneas, veins and heart valves could be transplanted into needy recipients; and some of his bones could be saved as well. At 11:30 p.m., Kristin signed the necessary paperwork and then headed home with her boss.

* * *

Earlier that night, Constance phoned Greg’s mother, Marie, to tell her Greg was being taken to the emergency room after having a bad reaction to cough syrup and some other medication.

Marie called the hospital to see if she could learn more. But since Marie was home alone, the nurse said she’d have to call her back. Marie immediately called Jerome, the oldest of Greg’s youngest brothers, with the upsetting news.

Jerome tried calling Scripps himself, but he, too, was home alone, so the nurse told him to go to his mother’s and call back from there. Why wouldn’t she just tell him what was going on? Jerome drove to Marie’s condo in Thousand Oaks and called Constance to see if he could get some better information. She didn’t know anything more and promised that Ralph would call them from the hospital with any new developments.

But Jerome couldn’t wait for that. He wanted to know what happened, and he couldn’t understand why no one would tell him. He called the hospital again, and this time the nurse asked if the sheriff’s deputy had arrived. "No," he said, so she put him on hold to talk to the deputy, who was coming to deliver the bad news in person. Marie, who was sitting by the window, saw a Ventura County sheriff’s cruiser pull up outside. The nurse got back on the line with Jerome, but he was so insistent that she went ahead and told him that Greg had "expired" before the deputy made it to the front door.

Jerome couldn’t believe it. How was this possible? He’d spoken to his brother only a few days earlier. Greg had called while Jerome was watching a DVD on Alaska, and he was too tired to talk, so he put Greg off and promised to call him back. Unfortunately, he never got around to it.

Marie was beside herself. A chronic smoker and an asthmatic since childhood, she’d had part of a lung removed, and now she was sobbing so hard she could barely breathe. Jerome was upset and he was scared. He didn’t want to lose his mother, too. Now the oldest of Marie’s sons, Jerome tried to comfort her while he called his other brother, Bertrand, and told him to meet them at their mother’s in Thousand Oaks. Bertrand, who lived about forty-five minutes south, near the University of California, Los Angeles, started crying and said he’d come as soon as he could. He was so emotional that his roommate decided to take the wheel and drive Bertrand to his mother’s.

When they arrived around 11 p.m., Marie and Jerome were still waiting for more definitive answers. But they never came. So, the family spent the night together, wracked with grief and confusion, asking each other questions and trying, unsuccessfully, to make sense of it all.

Jerome figured that now was the time to tell Marie that Kristin – the only one of her sons’ girlfriends she’d ever really accepted – was a former methamphetamine user. But when Jerome raised the question of whether Kristin might have had something to do with Greg’s death, Bertrand said he was talking crazy. Marie, who loved Kristin like a daughter, wouldn’t hear of it. There had to be a rational explanation.

* * *

UCSD Sgt. Bob Jones met Kristin and Michael on the landing in front of her apartment when they returned from the hospital around 11:45 p.m. It was understood that Michael should stay outside while Jones picked up the interview with Kristin where his officers had left off. Sitting at the dining room table, Jones asked Kristin to tell him what happened.

She told Jones that she and Greg had been fighting all weekend. It started on Thursday, she said, when she announced that she was moving out. They’d had dinner with her parents on Friday, spent Saturday night together, and then, on Sunday night, Greg, still upset, had taken some of her old prescriptions to help him sleep. He’d been sleeping all day on Monday in fact. Her lab was only fifteen minutes away, so she came home a number of times to check on him. Each time, she’d found him breathing – a little loudly at times – but otherwise he seemed fine.

Kristin said they’d had some soup together around lunchtime, and that’s when he told her he’d taken some of her old oxycodone and clonazepam. Oxycodone is a narcotic painkiller similar to Vicodin. Clonazepam, a sedative and also a narcotic, is classified as a date rape drug.

She told Jones she’d run some errands and then came home to take a long bath and a shower. She was about to get into bed sometime around nine o’clock, when she leaned over to kiss Greg. His forehead was cold, and he wasn’t breathing, so she called 911. The dispatcher told her to pull Greg off the bed and onto the floor, so that he was flat on his back and she could start doing CPR. Kristin wasn’t sure she’d be strong enough to get him off the bed by herself, but the dispatcher insisted. She pulled back the covers so she could turn him sideways, and that’s when she saw the rose petals all over his chest and their wedding photo under his pillow.

Jones asked her about the shredded letter he’d found in a plastic ziplock bag on the dining room table. Kristin said Greg found it on Thursday and got angry, so she put it through the shredder, but he’d been trying to piece it back together with tape. Jones took the letter as evidence, along with a note in Kristin’s handwriting that one of his officers found in the kitchen. Signed with a heart and Kristin’s first initial, it said: "Hi sleepy. Hope you feel better. I’m out to get a wedding present for Barb," and told him there were leftovers in the frige. Jones didn’t take Kristin’s diary, which an officer found lying on the coffee table.

Ralph Rossum arrived at the apartment around midnight, after stopping first at the hospital, where the social worker notified him of Greg’s death. He joined his daughter and Jones at the dining room table.

Angie Wagner, an investigator colleague of Kristin’s at the Medical Examiner’s Office, showed up around 1 a.m. By then, Kristin was sitting on the couch in the living room. Wagner didn’t know her very well. In fact, she hadn’t even known Kristin was married. Wagner asked Kristin her own series of questions for her report. After all the interviews were over, Michael left, and Ralph put his daughter into his car to start the difficult drive back to Claremont. Kristin’s hair was a mess, her face was puffy, and her eyes were swollen from crying all night.

"I’ve lost my Greggy," she told him. "I’ve lost my best friend."

It was about 1:40 a.m. The investigators saw no reason to disbelieve Kristin’s story. There were no broken doorjambs and no sign of a struggle. They left the apartment, thinking it was probably a suicide.

* * *

Stefan Gruenwald arrived at Orbigen on Tuesday around 9:45 a.m. and scanned the parking lot for Greg’s car. It wasn’t there, so he headed inside, intending to call Greg’s apartment first thing. But before Gruenwald even got to his desk, his assistant told him there was a phone call for him in his office.

"Who is it?" he asked.

"I don’t know – a Mike Robertson," she said. "It’s about Greg,"

Michael Robertson introduced himself as Kristin’s boss and told Gruenwald that something had happened to Greg. He gave Gruenwald the Rossums’ phone number in Claremont and asked him to call them right away. Michael said he couldn’t answer any questions and deferred to the Rossums.

Gruenwald called the number and got Constance Rossum. She said Greg had passed away the night before.

"What happened?" he asked, in disbelief.

Constance said Greg had experienced flu-like symptoms over the weekend, so he started taking cough syrup with some other drugs on Saturday and continued on Sunday. He must have had an allergic reaction, she said.

That sounded odd to Gruenwald, who’d earned a medical degree and a Ph.D. back in Frankfurt, Germany, and had spent some time doing forensics work. If someone was going to have an allergic reaction, he thought, it would develop right away, not two days later. He didn’t say anything to Constance at the time, but he thought the story sounded suspicious. Gruenwald called back a few hours later so he could talk to Kristin directly. "I can’t believe what happened," he said. "He was such a good person."

Kristin was crying. She agreed and said she couldn’t believe it, either. But from there, he said, the story changed. This time Kristin described Greg’s death as more of an overdose, perhaps an accidental one.

An overdose? Gruenwald had never seen Greg drunk, let alone under the influence of any drugs. He wouldn’t even go near the lab at Orbigen, which was used mostly for cancer research. Gruenwald had once asked Greg to help clean out the storage room, where they kept hundreds of containers of chemicals, but he refused, saying he didn’t want to touch them. Greg was much more comfortable with the business side of things. So, for Gruenwald, the idea of Greg dying from a drug overdose, even accidentally, just didn’t ring true.

Jerome de Villers felt the same way. Greg wasn’t the kind of guy to do or take too much of anything, and now he was dead. It just didn’t make sense. His head was jumbled with questions: Where did Greg get the medication that killed him? Did Kristin give it to him? Did Kristin have drugs in the apartment? Were they were doing drugs together and something went wrong? He dismissed the last scenario because he remembered it wasn’t that long ago that Greg wouldn’t even take the antihistamines Marie offered him for his stuffy nose. Jerome, an insurance investigator, was determined to find out from Kristin – and whoever else he had to ask – exactly what happened to his brother and why.