Thursday, December 1, 2011

Poisoned Love, Updated

By Caitlin Rother

Paramedics found the body of Greg de Villers on the bedroom floor, surrounded by red rose petals, with a wedding photo of him and his wife, Kristin Rossum, propped up near his head. Rossum, a beautiful blonde and a talented toxicologist, told police her adoring husband was so depressed she was leaving him that he’d overdosed on some old pills she’d once used to come down after smoking crystal meth.

But authorities concluded that Rossum was to blame after they discovered those same drugs – as well as the powerful painkiller, fentanyl -- were missing from her lab at the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office. Rossum, they said, was scared her husband would expose her meth addiction and her affair with her married boss, so she used the tools of her trade to poison de Villers with a lethal cocktail of narcotics. The case was dubbed the “American Beauty murder” after the red rose by that name and, of course, Rossum’s favorite movie, “American Beauty.”

Years after Rossum was sentenced to life in prison without parole, she got a new appellate defense attorney, who, in turn, found a medical expert to cast doubt not only on the cause of death in this case, but to raise fascinating forensic questions about the role of fentanyl and her conviction as well. The recent traction her appeal got from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave me the impetus to add twenty pages about these and other new developments to my book on the case, POISONED LOVE. The updated and revised edition officially goes on sale nationwide on Tuesday, December 6.

The new expert, Dr. Steven Richeimer, claimed that Rossum’s trial attorneys did not put on a good case back in 2002, and that the defense’s argument that de Villers ingested the fentanyl to commit suicide made no sense in light of the inherently conflicting medical evidence: de Villers’s body contained enormous amounts of fentanyl – a fast-acting narcotic that is 100 times stronger than morphine – and yet he took six to twelve hours to die. More importantly, the doctor contended, the prosecution’s argument that the drug was given to de Villers through multiple administrations over a period of time didn’t make sense either.

Richeimer’s new theory: contamination of the autopsy samples, accidentally or on purpose. In 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the defense’s request to retest those samples for fentanyl metabolites, to see if the drug got into de Villers’s system before or after death.

The appeal is still pending before the Ninth Circuit. Although the Attorney General’s Office won the latest round to stop Rossum from retesting those autopsy samples, Rossum and her attorney haven’t given up yet. Perhaps they have taken a cue from the case of Cynthia Sommer, who was ultimately acquitted after her husband’s autopsy specimens were retested and found to contain no arsenic after all.

Kristin Rossum had everything going for her: Beauty, brains, and the start of a brilliant career in toxicology. But in November 2000, Rossum, the daughter of two accomplished academics from Claremont, Calif., was torn between three relationships: one with her husband, one with her boss, and one with crystal meth, a very close old friend with whom she’d become recently reacquainted.

The 24-year-old toxicologist had kicked meth a few years earlier with the help of her husband, the son of a French plastic surgeon. After reluctantly agreeing to wed de Villers, she was already regretting her decision six months later. He was clingy. She felt suffocated. He wanted to start a family; she wanted to pursue her career.

Then Rossum found a way out. She fell in love with Michael Robertson, her hunky Australian boss, who was also in an unfulfilling marriage. The lovers snuck away for sex at lunch and wrote each other sappy cards and e-mails, fantasizing about having children and spending the rest of their lives together. “You are my destiny,” they told each other.

Torn over what to do, Rossum started using meth again. She told de Villers she was going to move out. They argued, and he threatened to report her affair and drug use to her superiors.

On the night of November 6, 2000, she called 911 to report finding her husband in bed – cold, pale and not breathing. The dispatcher told her to pull him onto the floor and start CPR. Rossum later police that when she pulled back the covers, she saw red rose petals all over his chest and their wedding photo tucked under his pillow. Despondent she was leaving him, he must have committed suicide, she said.

The police initially believed her story until the incriminating evidence began to mount. First, they learned of her affair. Then, after toxicology tests were done by an outside lab, which found that de Villers had several drugs in his system, the cause of death was ruled as acute fentanyl intoxication.

Rossum was charged with murder after fentanyl, meth and other drugs found in de Villers’ body were discovered missing from her lab. Prosecutors described Robertson as her “unindicted co-conspirator,” and despite a police investigation into his involvement, he still has not been charged. A jury found Rossum guilty of murder, with the special circumstances of using poison, in November 2002, and she was sent to prison for the rest of her life.

POISONED LOVE explores the psychological aspects of this complex case, revealing details about the investigation and major players that had never been disclosed to the public. The book also includes excerpts of e-mails, diary entries, letters and other court evidence that lend insights into Rossum’s character, illustrating how an obsession for passion, a fatal attraction to crystal meth, and easy access to dangerous narcotics can lead to murder. This cautionary tale shows how a powerful drug addiction, coupled with such a crime, can destroy not just one life but many others in the process.

I hope you can join me at one of the talks and signings I’ll be doing about this book and my first thriller, NAKED ADDICTION, which is also set in La Jolla. I’ll be at Barnes & Noble in Oceanside (Dec. 13), Warwick’s in La Jolla (Dec. 18), Bookstar across from UTC (Jan. 6), Bay Books in Coronado (Jan. 13), and the La Jolla Riford public library (Feb. 1). Please visit my website for updates and more details:

Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as a investigativer reporter for nearly 20 years, is the author or co-author of seven books: Poisoned Love, Deadly Devotion/Where Hope Begins, My Life, Deleted, Body Parts, Twisted Triangle, Naked Addiction, and her latest book, Dead Reckoning. Coming next is Lost Girls, about the murder of innocents Chelsea King and Amber Dubois by sexual predator John Gardner. For more information, please check out her website,


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