Chmurny succumbs to cyanide

Chemist took pill after Howard jury announced verdict

Courtroom suicide

57-year-old tried to poison woman with mercury

September 14, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Frederick chemist Alan Bruce Chmurny died yesterday, less than 24 hours after he swallowed a cyanide pill in open court after hearing a jury convict him of trying to poison a former co-worker with mercury.

Chmurny, who had been in the intensive care unit at Howard County General Hospital, was pronounced dead at 1:55 p.m., said hospital spokeswoman Mary Patton, who confirmed that Chmurny suffered cyanide poisoning.

Chmurny's decision to swallow the pill Wednesday unnerved Howard Circuit Court officials and stunned his lawyer, Dino Flores.

Flores said he had no inkling that the 57-year-old scientist, a man he described as "very intelligent," was contemplating suicide.

"I had no idea anything like this was possible," a shaken Flores said yesterday. "Certainly, sitting right next to him as he does this, it's very surreal to me."

Chmurny faced a maximum penalty of more than 30 years in prison for the crimes. Sentencing had been scheduled for Nov. 15.

Chmurny's actions at the defense table in Howard Circuit Court's ceremonial courtroom were not unprecedented. At least once before in Maryland, a defendant committed suicide by taking cyanide in open court.

In a Montgomery County case in the early 1980s, a man and woman, who apparently had a suicide pact, swallowed cyanide crystals after the man was sentenced to pre- release detention for a petty drug charge, said Timothy Clarke, then a Montgomery County deputy state's attorney, who was in court that day.

"I think you become a little more cautious in looking at people" after something like that, said Clarke, now in private practice in Rockville.

Flores said yesterday that his suspicions were not aroused until after the jury's verdict was announced, convicting Chmurny of assault and reckless endangerment charges for placing mercury in the air ducts of North Laurel resident Marta Bradley's station wagon in mid-April last year.

Flores said he heard Chmurny, who was on home detention during the trial, say, "Goodbye, I love you," at the defense table after the verdict was read. His statement "made me concerned about what was going on," he said.

He would not say what Chmurny told him at the defense table, but Flores immediately walked up to Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. and told him his client claimed to have taken cyanide. Kane ordered sheriff's deputies to take Chmurny into a back hallway.

There, at the sheriff's guard desk, Chmurny denied that he had swallowed anything as court officials dialed 911 and were connected with the Maryland Poison Center, said a court official who asked not to be named.

Within minutes, Chmurny gagged, threw up and went into convulsions; he stopped breathing for several minutes, but paramedics were able to revive him, the official said.

At the hospital, doctors treated Chmurny, using a cyanide antidote kit, a series of medicines used to counteract the cyanide's effects, Patton said. Cyanide stops red blood cells from releasing oxygen to nourish the body's tissues, said Dr. Bruce Anderson, director of the poison center.

Cyanide poisoning calls to the center are rare, Anderson said. The center logs between 35,000 and 40,000 "exposure" calls a year, one or two of them for serious cyanide exposure, he said.

Flores said he was told his client was placed on life support systems at Howard County General. Reached at the couple's White Oak Drive home last night, Chmurny's wife, Gwendolyn, also a chemist, referred all calls to Flores. Alan Chmurny, who held a doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles, had one daughter, Linda Newton. Newton was in court when her father took the pill.

For those involved in the case, which prosecutor Jim Dietrich called the culmination of a long obsession that had spiraled out of control, yesterday's finale seemed more fiction than reality.

Bradley, who met Chmurny when the two worked at Oceanix Biosciences Corp. in Hanover, testified at the trial that she believed Chmurny broke into her house in April 1997 and stole lingerie and jewelry; he later returned some items in an envelope, she said. After his arrest in June last year, detectives found a set of keys to Bradley's car, receipts from her trash, a map to her Jeanne Court house and a sexually explicit riddle in Chmurny's house.

"It almost seems like the ending of some sort of novel," Dietrich said. "But this is real life."

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