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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Pittsburgh researcher accused of murdering wife by cyanide

Published: August 23, 2013
Section: News

Dr. Robert Ferrante, neuroscientist and co-director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for ALS Research, has recently made headlines for his involvement in the murder of his wife, also a Pitt researcher. The 64-year-old is charged with the homicide of 41-year-old Dr. Autumn Marie Klein, chief of women’s neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and an assistant professor of neurology, obstetrics and gynecology.

The case began in mid-April when Klein suddenly fell ill after collapsing in her home in the Oakland. She remained in a coma for the next few days and passed away on April 20 at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital. Initially, the doctors were not sure what caused Klein’s drastic decline. The initial toxicology screening did not turn up anything unusual, (wasn’t there a high acidity level in the blood?) but a post-mortem test for cyanide returned positive. The difficulty of obtaining cyanide along with the its rare crime usage leaves it out of standard toxicology screenings.

“Cyanide, which can kill a human in a few minutes, is difficult for the average person to get hold of. But within the scientific community, cyanide is relatively easy to obtain,” wrote Liz Navratil of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Ferrante asked for his wife to be cremated soon after death, perhaps as a way to hide the cause of death. He is also accused of delaying his wife’s treatment as he wanted her to be taken to a hospital that was one mile further from their home, although the closer hospital was well-regarded and included a Level I Trauma Center. Witnesses at the hospital report that Ferrante spoke of his wife in the past tense although she was still alive at the time.

Ferrante is accused of poisoning his wife after asking a lab colleague to have 250 grams of potassium cyanide shipped overnight using his university credit card, two days before Klein collapsed in her home. While the substance is commonplace in some research, none of Ferrante’s work was using cyanide. A witness had heard him say that he wanted to buy “the best and purest cyanide he could get.” Most purchases using a university credit card are assigned to a specific grant or project, but this was the only one of Ferrante’s 145 purchases that was not.

Ferrante’s motive is believed to stem from anger and jealousy. Ferrante believed that Klein had been having an affair, and friends of Klein have said that she was considering leaving her husband of 12 years. Ferrante may have inserted the poison into an energy drink that his wife routinely drank. Ferrante allegedly told her that the drink would help their chances of conceiving a baby.

Dr. Klein had been an expert in treating pregnant women with neurological diseases. She became interested in science at a young age and graduated from Amherst College before receiving her M.D. and Ph.D. from Boston University. After graduation she worked in Boston at Massachusetts General Hospital, as a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, and Chief Resident at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital. She met her husband at the VA Hospital in Bedford, MA. She is survived by her parents and six-year old daughter. Her parents currently have custody of her daughter.

Ferrante stands charged with criminal homicide and has been extradited to Pennsylvania after being arrested in West Virginia.