As well as being used in many suicides, paraquat has also featured in a murder case. The murder went almost undetected but for the persistence of a pathologist.
The Barbers lived in Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex and had been married for over 10 years by 1981. Michael, who worked in a local factory, was unskilled and had been in trouble with the police several times. His wife, Susan, had married him at 17, already with child although, unbeknown to Michael, the child was not his.
Susan continued her infidelity, and had a regular lover who lived a few yards away. Michael's job required him to start early, at 5 am every morning, and once he left Susan's lover, Richard, would be round to share her bed. One morning in March Michael returned sooner than expected from an early morning fishing trip and discovered Susan and her lover. He attacked both of them.
Some time after this, on Thursday 4 June 1981, Michael complained of feeling unwell. First it was a headache, and then stomach pains and nausea. By the Saturday the doctor was called and antibiotics prescribed. The following Monday he was having difficulty breathing and had to be taken to the local hospital. His condition worsened and he was transferred to Hammersmith Hospital with severe kidney dysfunction. The medical staff were at a loss to explain his condition. Paraquat poisoning was considered a possibility, and junior staff were asked to collect urine and blood samples for analysis by the National Poisons Unit. Michael eventually died twenty-three days after the first symptoms had been detected. It had been anything but a quick death. A post-mortem was carried out by the pathologist, Professor Evans. He suspected paraquat poisoning and samples of the body tissues were sent for preparation for histology . Samples of the organs were also preserved. Professor Evans was told that there was no evidence of poisoning with paraquat but was unconvinced. Meanwhile Susan Barber took up residence with her lover and collected £15,000 in death benefit and pension plus regular payments for each child from her husband's employers.
In September the histological slides were returned to Professor Evans, and again he saw evidence suggestive of paraquat poisoning. He called a conference of staff involved and, while preparing for it noticed that the notes made no mention of a test for the presence of a poison such as paraquat having been carried out. A check soon found that the National Poisons Unit had never received the samples. Fortunately the serum and other tissue samples from Michael Barber had been preserved and were still available. Analysis by both the National Poisons Unit and the manufacturers of paraquat, ICI Ltd, revealed that paraquat was indeed present.
The police were alerted and Susan Barber and her former lover (she had by now acquired a new one) were arrested, nine months after her husband had died. She confessed that she had found the weedkiller Grammoxone in the garden shed and had added some to the steak and kidney pie she prepared for her husband. She claimed that she had only wanted to make him ill, and repeated the poisoning twice when there seemed to be no effect. She had not known that paraquat takes some time to work its unpleasant effects. Susan Barber was convicted of murder on 1 November 1982. An astute and persistent pathologist, together with sensitive and specific chemical analysis, had been her eventual undoing.9
This recent murder case featured a chemical, paraquat, which is more often involved in accidental poisonings and suicides. The toxicity of paraquat has already been described (see pp. 104-6). What this story shows, from a forensic toxicology point of view, is that, even when the murderer thinks they have got away with the crime, an inquisitive scientist or doctor can be their undoing. It also shows that when normally healthy people suddenly fall ill and die, especially with unusual symptoms (as in this case), it is cause for suspicion. In this case even an early correct diagnosis would not have helped Michael Barber, as paraquat poisoning cannot be treated except at an extremely early stage. Once a fatal dose has been taken, the outcome is a foregone conclusion and the prognosis extremely unpleasant. However, as paraquat is reasonably easy to detect in the body of a victim, it is not an ideal poison for homicide.
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