Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003
It was a case that had doctors and law enforcement in the small town
of Perry, Okla. puzzled. What killed 53 year-old Carol Hellar?
From June 1994 until her death a year later, Hellar made 31 trips to
various hospitals and clinics. She was seen by 23 doctors and hospitalized
over a dozen times, always with the same symptoms – dehydration,
mental confusion, kidney dysfunction and chronic metabolic acidosis (an
abnormal decrease in blood acidity), yet no definitive diagnosis was made.
Following her death, the medical examiner had a hunch, but still listed
her death as undetermined.
What doctors did know about Hellar was that she was a manic-depressive
with a bi-polar disorder. They assumed her medications – which included
lithium – and their subsequent side effects were the cause of her
It was during the latter stages of the two-and-a-half-year investigation
into Hellar’s death and through a mutual friend that Alphonse Poklis,
Ph.D., a forensic toxicologist in the Department of Pathology at Virginia
Commonwealth University, received a phone call. “The principal investigator
wanted me to review all of the information they had gathered in the case.”
According to the thousands of pages of information, Hellar’s only
symptom that was inconsistent with a reaction to her medication was kidney
failure. The records showed throughout her illness that Hellar had a steady
decline in kidney function. At autopsy, significant levels of calcium
oxalate crystals were found in her kidneys and brain, which could only
be present as a result of a genetic disorder or ingestion of ethylene
glycol, commonly known as antifreeze.
“The interesting thing about ethylene glycol poisoning is that
the symptoms can easily mirror those of an overdose of lithium and other
prescribed psychoactive medications – which is what kept her doctors
off balance,” Poklis said. “Poisoning from ethylene glycol
is usually accidental, or the result of an attempted suicide.”
Because of its physical properties, testing for ethylene glycol requires
special equipment and can only be performed at a handful of hospitals
and laboratories. As a result, Hellar’s blood was not tested for
the presence of ethylene glycol until just weeks before her death, but
at that point, it was too late. Hellar died in June 1995.
“Ethylene glycol by itself is not that toxic…it’s the
metabolites that are created as the body breaks down ethylene glycol that
make it lethal,” said Poklis. “The end result is kidney failure,
among other things.”
For authorities, the ethylene glycol evidence boiled the case down to
a question of suicide or, perhaps, homicide. They hoped Poklis could move
the case in one direction.
The investigation had also revealed patterns in Hellar’s illnesses.
She began getting sick shortly after marrying Dennis Hellar in June 1994.
Over the next year, whenever Dennis was away on business, her health improved,
but subsequently declined shortly after he would return. Interviews with
family and friends largely discounted any tendencies Carol Hellar may
have had toward suicide.
Poklis reviewed the reams of medical transcripts for six weeks and determined
Carol Hellar had indeed been slowly poisoned with ethylene glycol.
With Poklis’ assessment of the facts in hand and his agreement
to testify in court as a toxicology expert, investigators returned to
Oklahoma to continue questioning Dennis Hellar. In the weeks that followed,
Hellar was charged with murder and the medical examiner changed the cause
of death to homicide by poisoning. Poklis never had to appear in court
– shortly before the trial was to begin, Dennis Hellar confessed
to poisoning his wife.
“Her case is a tragic confluence of her pre-existing illness, the
medications she used, and the fact that all these things together looked
like an overdose of her medication.”
According to his confession, Hellar dropped small amounts of antifreeze
in his wife’s drinks and soups. He told police he did not want to
divorce his wife because he would lose their apartment and all of her
“To me the real hero of all of this is the investigative team.
I’ve worked a lot of cases where no indictments are handed down,”
said Poklis. “The [investigators] dogged determination to get to
the bottom of this case brought about justice.”
Poklis recently shared his involvement in the Hellar case with a video
crew from Crime TV’s Forensic Files show. The show is slated to
air this fall.
“I enjoyed sifting through the evidence,” said Poklis who
is currently working on another poisoning case. “This is how forensic
toxicology started out – as a way to help law enforcement solve
cases. I do it because it’s our highest calling.”