Attempted killings stun home of Nobel winners

July 27, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- Over the years, scientists at Rockefeller University -- one of the world's pre-eminent research institutions -- have identified DNA, found the first cancer virus, grown the malaria parasite and wrestled with some of biology's most complex problems.

Now, they are trying to solve their most terrifying mystery: Who may be trying to kill them?

Police disclosed yesterday that someone at the research campus bordering the East River in Manhattan put poison in coffee and tea, deliberately left gas jets on in a molecular biology laboratory, set a fire and sent threatening letters to two eminent female scientists.

The events over five days in June, first detailed in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, have spread fear through portions of the university, which over the years has produced 19 Nobel Prize winners. Laboratory workers have taken lie detector tests and have been questioned extensively by police.

"We believe it's a disgruntled employee," said John Hill, Chief of Manhattan Detectives. "We're working on the theory it's jealousy of these two women. . . . We have a suspect in mind."

Chief Hill said the letters demanded the two scientists quit.

"It's my opinion the person who is responsible for these acts is an employee there still," the detective chief added.

Events at the university, founded by John D. Rockefeller in 1901 after his first grandchild died from scarlet fever, center on the molecular biology laboratory headed by Robert Roeder.

Police said that on June 6, a group of workers in the 15th-floor laboratory became ill after drinking tea and coffee. The beverages had been poisoned.

The next day, gas jets were left on in Dr. Roeder's laboratory, which could have caused an explosion. Workers closed the valves, and there were no injuries.

On June 8, a small fire was discovered in a closet. Paper towels were smoldering, and it was arson. Two days later, letters containing death threats to the two scientists, Luz Matsumoto and Magda Carvalho, were found in a women's restroom. Two more letters were sent to Dr. Roeder and to Rockefeller University officials.

"They were threatening in nature. They wanted them to quit," Chief Hill said.

Officials at Rockefeller University said security precautions had been increased at Dr. Roeder's basic genetics laboratory, where 40 scientists and technicians work. A spokesman declined to elaborate on the preparations.

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