A federal judge has denied a plea for compassionate release from prison by an Auburn woman who’s serving 90 years for planting poisoned pills that killed two and prompted national recalls of over-the-counter painkillers.

Stella Nickell, 78, has served 34 years of her sentence and last month filed a petition arguing that her failing health and nearly spotless record should qualify her for early release.

But U.S. District Judge James Robart on Thursday found that Nickell, who has already twice been denied parole, doesn’t qualify for compassionate relief.

The Bureau of Prisons could ask for Nickell’s release, the judge said, but has not done so. She became eligible in 2017 after serving 30 years of her 90-year sentence.

Given credit for good behavior, Nickell will be eligible for release in 2040, when she’s 96 years old, according to court documents.

Federal prosecutors said they opposed her release.

Nickell was convicted after police and FBI agents, following months of investigation, concluded she had laced her husband’s Excedrin painkillers with cyanide to collect on his insurance, then planted poisoned pills in stores to throw off investigators.


Her husband, Bruce Nickell, collapsed at home in 1986 at the age of 42 after taking several Excedrin tablets for a headache, according to news accounts. He died, as did Auburn woman Sue Snow, who apparently picked up a bottle of the tainted tablets from a grocery store, according to news reports and court records.

Records show agents found five contaminated bottles of medicine during a search of Auburn-area grocery stores and pharmacies, prompting widespread recalls of over-the-counter analgesics in the Northwest and elsewhere as health officials and the FBI sought to uncover the source of the poison.

The poisonings resulted in widespread public anxiety, as they came just five years after seven people died in Chicago from poisoned Tylenol capsules, leading to the product-tampering law under which Nickell was convicted.