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Bitter Almonds: The True Story of Mothers, Daughters, and the Seattle Cyanide Murders (St. Martin's True Crime Library Series)

Bitter Almonds: The True Story of Mothers, Daughters, and the Seattle Cyanide Murders (St. Martin's True Crime Library Series)

3.6 11
by Gregg Olsen

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Stella Nickell's small-time world was one of big-time dreams. In 1986, her biggest one came true when her husband died during a seizure, making her the beneficiary of a $175,000-plus insurance payoff—until authorities discovered Bruce Nickell's headache capsules had been laced with cyanide. In an attempt to cover her tracks, Stella did the unconscionable. She


Stella Nickell's small-time world was one of big-time dreams. In 1986, her biggest one came true when her husband died during a seizure, making her the beneficiary of a $175,000-plus insurance payoff—until authorities discovered Bruce Nickell's headache capsules had been laced with cyanide. In an attempt to cover her tracks, Stella did the unconscionable. She saw to it that a stranger would also become a "random casualty" of cyanide-tainted painkillers. But Stella's cunning plan came undone when her daughter Cynthia notified federal agents. And troubling questions lingered like the secret of bitter almonds...

What would turn a gregarious barfly like Stella into a cold-hearted killer overnight? Why would Cynthia, a mirror image of her mother, turn on her own flesh and blood? Did Cynthia reveal everything she knew about the crimes? The stunning answers would unfold in a case that sparked a national uproar, dug deep into a troubled family history, and exposed an American mother for the pretty poison she was.

Gregg Olsen's Bitter Almonds is true crime writing at its best.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Absolutely fascinating...one of the most devious female minds in crime history.” —Ann Rule

“[A] truly remarkable book. The trailer park babes of Bitter Almonds leap off the page, fingernails sharpened and aimed for your eyes.” —Jack Olsen, author of Son: A Psychopath and His Victims and "I": The Creation of a Serial Killer

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
St. Martin's True Crime Library Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
4.22(w) x 6.69(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt

Bitter Almonds


Sue Kathryn


Sue Snow's free-spirited oldest daughter, Exa, was off at the Pony Soldier Inn with a man she had just met who was going through a drug-treatment program.

"Should I worry about your creepy sister?" Sue asked with a rueful smile when she saw her youngest daughter, Hayley, that morning.

It was true that Exa Snow, always the independent one, could take care of herself—even if she didn't exercise the best judgment. Sue had always treated her eldest more as a friend than a daughter. And because of that, Exa pushed the line to the limit. But when push came to shove, as it often did, Sue Snow was still Mom. And Mom was in charge.

Hayley hugged her mother good morning.

"No, Mommy, don't worry about her."

Even though fifteen, Hayley Snow still called her mother "Mommy." Sue was proud that her daughter had the guts to use the name, when all her girlfriends had switched to the less endearing, albeit more grown-up, "Mom." Yet Hayley's friends understood. To them, Sue really was a "Mommy."

She kissed her daughter and called "I love you" as she went down the hall to her bathroom located off the master bedroom. Hayley closed her bathroom door. As she stepped into the shower she heard her mother turn on the faucet to her sink.

It was just after 6:30, June 11, 1986, when she heard the noise.

"I heard something drop while I was in the shower," Hayley later recalled. "At first I panicked, the first second I heard it. Then I thought, That's really stupid, she's not going to just fall on her face. So I ignored it, got out of the shower, and put on my bra and underwear."

Hayley was applying eye makeup when she realized that the water in her mother's sink was still running. She knew her mother's pattern from hearing her every morning through the bathroom walls. Something was wrong. Hayley went to see what was going on.

Then she found her.

Sue, wearing her zippered purple robe with a white stripe down the front, lay on her back. The water was nearing the top of the sink, so Hayley turned the spigot off before dropping to her knees beside her.

Her mother's pretty hazel eyes were fixed, frozen at the corner of the room. Her head rested on the sliding track of the shower door; her hand was across her breast. Her red lacquered nails accented fingers curled backward sharply and unnaturally.

Hayley struggled as she tried to figure out what had gone wrong.

She noticed that the curling iron was by the sink, then checked her mother's head, pulse ... she tried to remember what she had learned in health class. There was a pulse, but it was faint. She bent her mother's fingers back to a normal position, because it looked as if they hurt.

Then she realized her mother wasn't breathing. Hayley got ready to do CPR when her mother gasped for air. Yet she didn't exhale. Hayley had learned that if a person is breathing on her own, do not do CPR.

She called Karen Inoue, a friend from their old condo complex, just down the road. Karen told Hayley to call 911 and she'd be over right away.

"What's the matter?" asked dispatcher Brenda Deeds, a Valley Comm 911 operator, when Hayley's call came at 6:43 A.M.

"I think my mother fell while I was in the shower ... and she's breathing and everything, but something's wrong with her."

The dispatcher asked the address and Hayley told her it was 1404 N. Street N.E., Auburn. She calmly provided their phone number.

"Okay. Is she able to talk to you still?"

"I don't know. It's like she's sleeping with her eyes open."

"Is she able to talk to you at all?"

"She's not talking," Hayley answered, her voice now beginning to quaver. "She's lying in the bathtub ... I mean she's lying in the bathroom ... and her head is in the shower."

The dispatcher told Hayley to go back to her mother and try to get her to talk. She also told her to check on her mother's breathing.

The receiver picked up Hayley's scared cries as she called: "Mommy, Mommy ...

"She's breathing, but it's kind of weird," Hayley answered.

"Is she able to talk to you yet?"

By now the fifteen-year-old was in tears. "She didn't talk ..."

"Did she move at all or do anything?"

"She just took a deep breath."

"I want to make sure she's breathing normally, though. How is her coloring?"

"Um, hold on a sec, okay?"

"Can you hear me?"


"Shake her hand. Tell her to talk with you. See if she will. Come back and tell me."

"Okay. Hold on ..."

Again she went to her mother, sprawled out on the bathroom floor. "Mommy, Mommy, please talk to me. Mommy ..." Her voice got louder as she tried to wake her. "Mommy, won't you please talk to me? Mommy. Mommy, please talk to me."

"She won't talk to met ..." she cried into the phone.

The dispatcher did what she could to reassure the girl. "We've got the aid car on the way, okay? I want you to keep on the phone with me. What is she doing now? Is she still breathing normally?"

"It's not really normal. It's just breathing."

Karen Inoue arrived and Hayley left the phone for a second to let her in. The dispatcher told Hayley she wanted her to stay on the phone and to check her mother again. Did she know CPR?

Hayley said she did. She had learned it in health class. As she spoke, the doorbell rang and the fire department arrived.

It was 6:47 A.M.

In tears, the girl directed the men to the bathroom, where they found Sue Snow lying on the floor in agonal respiration, a gasping, snorting respiration. Sue's eyes were open, fixed, and dilated.

The firemen attempted to ventilate her by using a bag mask, a device with a face piece fitting over the nose and mouth and aplastic reservoir the EMT squeezes to facilitate breathing.

But Sue Snow was deteriorating.


It was near the end of her shift when paramedic Debbie Ayrs and Medic 6 officer Randy Bellon answered the call of a "woman down" in Auburn. They arrived just after the fire fighters. Hayley Snow took them to her mother, still sprawled on the upstairs bathroom floor. The fire fighters lifted Sue Snow, arms dangling, from the bathroom to the bedroom, where there would be more room to work.

Debbie remembered it all years later: "We started doing our resuscitation, but it wasn't going right. We would give her something to help her cardiac rhythm and it wouldn't help. She was neurologically intact, she was acting like a head injury, but she wasn't exhibiting any of the things that go along with that."

"Has this ever happened before?" she asked the girl.


"Does she have any history of depression? Suicide attempts?"


"Was your mother on any drugs?"


They asked if she thought her mother had slipped while going into the shower. Again, the answer was no. Hayley explained that Sue Snow took her showers in the evening.

Debbie made a sweep through the cabinets for drugs, shaking bottles rapidly to determine if Sue Snow might have overdosed.

Hayley volunteered that her mother took Excedrin each morning, and Debbie Ayrs asked for the bottle. When Hayley brought it out of the kitchen, Debbie shook it, but it was full.

Airlift Northwest was summoned from Harborview Medical Center. Debbie Ayrs and Randy Bellon hadn't a clue about what had caused Sue Snow to collapse.

They put a tube down Sue Snow's trachea.

It was hard for Hayley to watch and at the same time hard not to watch, as the paramedics swarmed over her mother. She went to the phone and called the bank to leave a message that her mother had fallen down and wouldn't be in that day.

She was asked again about possible drug use.

"No. My mother's not a druggie," the girl responded incredulously.

The garbage in the bathroom was examined to see if anything was there. There wasn't.

An unresponsive Sue Snow was loaded onto a stretcher for the ride to the landing zone on a tiny stretch of runway passing for Auburn's small municipal airport. No one thought the woman was going to survive.

Hayley gathered up her math homework for the trip to Harborview with Karen Inoue. Why she brought her schoolwork, or how she ever thought she could even work at it, was something she would never be able to recall.


Seattle's Harborview Medical Center is the Northwest's best trauma center, and the county hospital where the indigent come for care. Gang fights. Knifings. Murder. It is a place where the saddest of stories often end. Desperate measures were used to save Sue Snow's life when she was airlifted there that morning.

Hayley and Karen arrived before 7:30. Clutching her math homework, the fifteen-year-old plainly did not understand the seriousness of her mother's condition. She sat in a waiting area, staring at her book.

She did not know where her sister was; her mother's husband, Paul Webking, was at work and someone had contacted him; and her own daddy, Connie Snow, was on the job at Boeing in Auburn—not the easiest place to track someone down.

A doctor came in and told the girl that something was the matter with her mother's brain. It was swollen, she thought she heard the man say.

A few minutes later, the doctor returned and said Sue was still in a coma.

"We're trying everything we can," the doctor said. "We're going to run some more tests. Is your father coming?"

"I think so," Hayley said.

There is no way to measure time in a hospital waiting room, but a short time later, the man returned.

"I'm sorry," he said. "But your mother is brain-dead."


Paul Webking was loading his truck at Safeway's Distribution Center in Bellevue, just east of Seattle, when a salesman from the Metro Freight office came and told him that his wife had been rushed to Harborview.

He wondered aloud if Sue had suffered some kind of anxietyattack, caused by the stress of her job as a vice president of the North Auburn branch of Puget Sound Bank.

"Sue has been working so hard," he said.

She had even taken some medication to calm her nerves, though what the pills were eluded him at the time.

Paul and his boss left for Harborview. Their conversation was so unconstrained, they were distracted enough to even lose their way to the hospital. Paul Webking wasn't even close to being worried, and he certainly didn't exhibit much concern. After all, whatever medical problem his wife was suffering was being handled.

Paul entered through the emergency-room entrance. Hayley Snow would later recall that his demeanor seemed casual. She thought she saw him carrying a book, as if he was going to have time to get a little reading in.

"Hey, what's going on?" he asked when he saw Hayley.

"Mommy's brain-dead."

The color drained from Paul's face, and he hugged her.

"I was thinking, God, would you just let go of me? I just turned really bitter, but I didn't exactly know why," Hayley later said.

A doctor came and reaffirmed the prognosis. Sue Snow was on life support, but for all intents and purposes she was dead. He indicated they were going to work on her a while longer to see if they could get some kind of response.

Paul went to call Sarah Webb, Sue's identical twin sister, who lived in Denver.


The previous evening, Exa Snow and her mother had discussed having lunch that day. Exa hadn't planned on spending the night at the motel with Jorge Sanchez. Even though she was in her early twenties, she still had the part of her mother in her that cautioned against "sleeping around."

Exa was a bit of a free spirit, but she was not reckless. Her mom knew that.

"It was not like I did bad things, but I was very independent, just did whatever I wanted. I was just kind of inconsiderate. I would tell Mom I'd be home at ten, and come home at one or two o'clock or whenever. That night we went out to Seattle Center. When we came back it was three or four o'clock in the morning, and I said, 'I'm just going to stay here with you instead of going back.' So we stayed there. Nothing happened. Swear to God. I knew I'd never see him again," she later said.

Up before 11 A.M., Exa phoned her mother at the bank, but an employee told her she wasn't in. She had fallen down at home. The woman didn't seem particularly alarmed and suggested Exa call the house. Exa did, but her mother wasn't there either. She called the bank again, and the bank employee told her that it was Hayley who had called earlier with word her mother had passed out.

She must have broken her arm, Exa thought, before calling the family doctor. But his office didn't know anything. She tried Auburn General. They didn't have her mother registered there.

Where could she be?

Not knowing what else to do, and beginning to feel a little panicky, Exa called Auburn General again. The woman who answered said she'd check to see if an ambulance had been called for a Sue Snow. She came back on the line and said, "Your mother was picked up by helicopter and taken to Harborview."

"What's the deal? What's happening?" she asked when she finally reached a doctor at Harborview.

"I have some pretty bad news," he told her. "Your mom is dying."

She got directions, went home, changed in record time, and left for the hospital in Jorge Sanchez's rental car.

Hayley saw her sister coming from down the hall and ran to her. Clinging together, they told each other they had to be strong.


The day before Sue Snow collapsed, Sarah Webb phoned her twin, but Sue never called her back. That was unusual, but Sarah thought maybe something was going on at the bank and she couldn't get back to her. After all, she was a VP.

That night Sarah couldn't sleep. Her thoughts turned to old times, times with Paul and Sue.

The next morning, Sarah was in the bathroom when the phone rang.

"Go ahead and answer it," she called to her husband, Rodney, who was back in Denver after a thirty-day job in Egypt. "It's Sue," she said, "tell her I'll be right there."

It wasn't Sue. It was Paul with the news Sue was in a coma. The Webbs made flight reservations and Rodney threw some clothes together. Their preschooler daughter, whom the family called Baby Dumpling, went around the house saying her prayers. Sarah, in a daze, watered houseplants.

"We were walking out the door to the airport when they calledto say she died. I think Paul should have waited until we got there before he pulled the life support. But he didn't. He wanted to be the boss," she later said.


A little after 11 A.M. the doctors asked if they could remove Susan Kathryn Snow from life support. They said it was the family's decision, but there was absolutely no hope for recovery. Just forty, Sue was gone. The family agreed.

Hayley went into her mother's hospital room. The woman lying there no longer looked like her mother. In her hospital gown, Sue looked like an inflatable mannequin. Her fingernail polish had been removed, her toes were swollen and sticking out from under the sheet. Sue's eyes were tiny slits and there was tape and tubing all over her arms. Her mother's chest rose and fell with the machine. It made Hayley ill. She took one look and left.

"I couldn't touch her," she later said.

Exa was even more uncomfortable with going in to say goodbye to the distorted figure in the hospital bed. She looked at her mother's feet, though, and knew it was her.

"She just had these perfectly painted toenails."

Paul stayed in the room for some time. A doctor watched him pat his wife's distended hands as he cried. He wondered how his wife had died. He even made some suggestions. Then he told Sue good-bye.

Connie Snow and some friends from the branch of Puget Sound National Bank where Sue worked had come to the hospital, and Hayley left with her father.

"Let's go by school, it's not out yet," she said. "I need to get some things to study for finals."

Connie figured his daughter wanted to get her mind off of what had happened.

Hayley didn't know what else to do.

Copyright © 1993 by Gregg Olsen.

Meet the Author

Gregg Olsen has been a journalist and investigative author for more than twenty years. He is the recipient of numerous writing, editing, and photojournalism awards, including citations of excellence from the Society of Professional Journalists (Sigma Delta Chi), the International Association of Business Communicators, Washington Press Association, Society of Technical Communication, and the Public Relations Society of America.

A resident of Washington state, Olsen has been a guest on dozens of national and local television shows, including educational programs for the History Channel, Learning Channel, and the Discovery Channel. Olsen also appeared several times on CBS's 48 Hours, MSNBC's Special Edition, Entertainment Tonight, Sally Jesse Raphael, Inside Edition, and Extra. He has been featured in USA Today, Salon Magazine, Seattle Times, and the New York Post.

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Bitter Almonds: The True Story of Mothers, Daughters and the Seattle Cyanide Murders 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read all of the Ann Rule and Jack Olsen (Give A Boy A Gun Son, etc.) true crime books and have enjoyed them immensly. Bitter Almonds is as good as anything they (or anyone else) has ever written. I just finished reading it for the second time, and found I enjoyed it even more than the first reading. I think the reader gets to know some of the people in this book better than their own families do-and they are fascinating. This book is a must for True Crime lovers.
Randy_O More than 1 year ago
I'm normally a fan of Gregg Olsen, but this one was just too long and drawn out. I fthey had cut 150 pages out of it, it would have been better.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There are 540 pages to this book and I struggled to read 300 of them. I lost the battle. The storyline went over Stella and her plight and life page after page. I kept hoping things would move on but they never did. It was very boring reading about Stella and you never really read anything different than what you had read before. I don't plan to trust any of his books in the future. I will buy no more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
good true crime
jmhtx More than 1 year ago
I love it
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another great read by Olsen
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
See u there. Her voice was a whisper as she walked away. Her tight a$$ visable.