Imagine the predicament of Special Agent Susan Gorek of the Polk County, Florida, Sheriff’s Department. She was hot on the trial of a suspected poisoner and acting undercover, only to be served several meals by the man’s wife at a murder mystery party where poison was the fatal weapon.
Not only was her quarry, George Trepal, suspected of killing his neighbor, Peggy Carr, and attempting to kill the rest of her family, he was possibly flaunting his actions by staging a mystery party based on the facts of his crime.
“When a death threat appears on the doorstep, prudent people throw out all their food and watch what they eat. Hardly anyone dies from magic,” Trepal wrote in a brochure promoting the event Voodoo for Fun and Profit. “Most items on the doorstep are just a neighbor’s way of saying, ‘I don’t like you. Move or else.'”
That was exactly the reason authorities suspected that Trepal poisoned the Carr family: He just didn’t like them.
Trepal and the Carr family blended like oil and water, and while nothing excuses Trepal’s unilateral solution to the problems he was having with his neighbors, the facts that came out at Trepal’s murder trial indicate that the Carrs were not exactly the folks most of us would want for neighbors. They were loud, sometimes selfish and inconsiderate, and there were a lot of them, which conflicted with Trepal’s desire simply to be alone.
Trepal and his wife moved into their home in Alturas, Florida, in the early 1980s and apparently existed in a tense but quiet solitude alongside their neighbors, a divorced father named Pye Carr and his son. The homes were located amid orange groves and were very isolated. The next nearest neighbors were about a quarter-mile away.
The quiet solitude ended in 1988 when Pye married Peggy and she moved into the home with her son. Around the same time Pye began to illegally convert his garage into an apartment for his two daughters and granddaughter. That construction caused the first major altercation between the Trepals and the Carrs after Trepal went to the county authorities and reported Pye’s actions. The county ordered Pye to cease and desist until he received the zoning variance and obtained the appropriate permits, which he eventually did, obviously increasing the cost of the project.
Most of the incidents between the Trepals and Carrs were of the annoyance type: lots of complaints about loud radios, motorcycles crossing the property lines — which prompted the first “death threat” by Trepal — and barking dogs. They were certainly not the kind of irritants that would result in murder.
While Trepal was the most frequent complainer, the Carr family was not without blame. After the relationship between the families deteriorated the Carrs would often provoke Trepal with loud noises and usually refused to turn down the radio when Trepal or his wife complained. Probably not the nicest thing to do, but not deserving of death threats and murder.
In June 1988, the Carrs received a letter threatening that they would all die if they did not leave Florida immediately: “You and all your so-called family have two weeks to move out of Florida forever or else you will all die. This is no joke.”
To the Carrs there was no doubt who wrote the letter, but apparently they shrugged it off as another of Trepal’s idle threats.
What the Carrs did not know was that their neighbor was an accomplished chemist who once served three years in prison for manufacturing methamphetamine. They also did not know that Trepal and his partners used the “P2P method” where thallium nitrate can be used in the process. Specifically, thallium III nitrate can be used to produce phenyl-II-propanone, an immediate precursor used in the manufacture of both methamphetamine and amphetamine. When the P2P is produced, a sediment drops out of solution, and that sediment is thallium I nitrate. The P2P is then used to manufacture meth, and the thallium I nitrate is disposed of.
To the well-informed homicidal chemist, however, thallium in any form and in the right dose can be fatal.
Thallium is a bluish-white metal that is found in trace amounts in the earth’s crust. In its pure form, thallium is odorless and tasteless. People who ingest large amounts of thallium over a short time have reported vomiting, diarrhea, temporary hair loss, and effects on the nervous system, lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys. Death by thallium poisoning is a slow, painful process.
On October 23, 1988, Peggy Carr began to show symptoms of an unknown illness, including nausea, pain in her chest and extremities, and difficulty breathing. She was admitted to Bartow Memorial Hospital the next day and stayed for three days. Back at home, Peggy’s symptoms worsened, and the children in the Carr home, Travis and Duane, began to show similar symptoms. On October 30, 1988, Peggy, Travis, and Duane were admitted to Winter Haven Hospital
Fortunately for the Carrs, the physician treating the family suspected thallium poisoning based on the symptoms displayed. Within one day, thallium poisoning was confirmed.
Despite treatment, Peggy Carr’s condition deteriorated, and within a week she lapsed into a coma from which she never awoke.
She died on March 3, 1989 when life-support was disconnected. Duane remained hospitalized for two months and Travis for six months, but both eventually recovered. Tests revealed the presence of thallium not only in Travis and Duane, but also in Pye, his daughter Gelena, and his granddaughter Kasey, who also lived with Pye and Peggy.
Florida officials did not consider Peggy’s death a homicide but did begin an investigation into how the family came into contact with thallium.
At the Carrs’ home investigators recovered an 8-pack of 16-ounce glass Coca-Cola bottles from the kitchen. Three bottles were full and four were empty.
Florida and FBI Laboratories tested and found thallium in the three full bottles and thallium residue in the four empty bottles.
The lot numbers of the cola bottles allowed police to trace when and where the bottles were produced. Officials determined that it was impossible for eight bottles containing thallium to end up being packaged together. Coca-Cola officials claimed that they had not received any other reports of poisoning or threats related to tampering with their product.
The bottle caps from the three full bottles showed evidence of having been removed by a small tool and then placed back onto the bottles with a press or capping device. The investigation became a criminal one.
Detective Ernest Mincey of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office led the investigation and the interview of Trepal that put him on the police’s radar. In his interview, which took place on December 22, 1988, Trepal looked very nervous.
When asked why someone might want to poison the Carr family, Trepal said perhaps someone wanted them to move out of their house, which, Trepal noted, the Carrs had done. Mincey found this response suspicious because it was different from those given by the more than 50 people Mincey had already interviewed and that it was “almost identical” to the threatening letter.
Further investigation revealed that Trepal lied to investigators on several points: He told Detective Mincey and FBI Agent Brad Brekke that he was a self-employed computer programmer and technical writer and he knew nothing of thallium. Trepal also told police that he accompanied his wife to her office each day (she was a physician and was never implicated in any crime) when in fact he stayed at home. This gave him access to the Carr home because they told police that they rarely locked their doors.
Additional circumstantial evidence helped make Trepal the primary suspect: He made homemade wine and owned a device that could be used to re-cap soda bottles.
Despite Trepal’s strange behavior, there was not enough evidence to charge Trepal with any crime. The investigation went cold until Trepal gave authorities a reason to suspect him even more and the perfect opportunity to nail him for his crime.
In April 1989 an article in the local newspaper profiled upcoming events for the Mensa organization, of which Trepal and his wife were members. The article discussed an upcoming “Mensa murder weekend” role-playing event that Trepal and his wife were hosting. Susan Goreck, a Special Agent with the Polk County Sheriff’s Department, began an undercover investigation of Trepal by attending the event under the assumed name “Sherry Guin.”
The Mensa murder weekend was held at a local hotel. There were four “murders” acted out during the weekend, which the participants, while acting out their roles, tried to solve. The story concerned voodoo. The murders were very sophisticated, and each of the four was preceded by the victim receiving a threatening note. Trepal’s wife wrote the murder scenarios with Trepal’s help. In particular, Trepal himself wrote a booklet given to participants during the weekend that discussed, among other things, poisoning and threats by neighbors.
Few voodooists believe they can be killed by psychic means, but no one doubts that he can be poisoned. When a death threat appears on the doorstep, prudent people throw out all their food and watch what they eat. Hardly anyone dies from magic. Most items on the doorstep are just a neighbor’s way of saying, “I don’t like you. Move or else.”
Agent Goreck ingratiated herself with Trepal during the weekend and became friends with Trepal and his wife. When Trepal told Gorek that he and his wife wanted to sell their home, she responded that she might be interested. Eventually they reached an agreement where Gorek would rent the house.
During the weekend, Trepal told Goreck that he and his wife were planning to move and that Trepal might be selling his Alturas home. Goreck told Trepal she would like to look at Trepal’s home if it were for sale.
In November 1989, Trepal and his wife moved to Sebring, Florida. From December 1989 to January 1990, Goreck rented Trepal’s home in Alturas. While Goreck was renting Trepal’s house in Alturas, she and other law enforcement officers searched it. FBI Agent Brekke found a brown bottle inside the drawer of a workbench in Trepal’s detached garage. Brekke uncapped the bottle and saw residue inside it. Goreck sent the bottle to the FBI Lab for analysis. The FBI Lab informed investigators that the bottle contained thallium I nitrate.
Numerous chemical and poison-related books were found in Trepal’s new home, including a pamphlet written by Trepal called “Chemistry for the Complete Idiot, Practical Guide to all Chemistry” with pictures and index and a homemade journal described as by prosecutors as “a general poison guide.”
Trepal’s journal included photocopied pages from a book entitled Poison Detection in Human Organs. One of the photocopied pages included a discussion of thallium. The journal was tested for fingerprints and was found to have Trepal’s prints on it. Trepal’s wife’s prints were not found on the journal.
Trepal’s journal also contained photocopied pages from another book with a section entitled “Death by Poison Synopsis.” One page from the journal stated (incorrectly) that “Determining whether a person died as a result of natural illness or as a result of poisoning is one of the most difficult types of investigation both for the officer and for the medical expert.” The page described
the process by which one tries to determine if someone has been poisoned. The next page in the journal stated, among other things, “The presence of any one poison is so difficult to ascertain that it may be undetected unless the [medical] examiner has some idea as to the type of poison for which he is looking.”
Trepal was charged with seven counts of poisoning and one of murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death in Polk County on March 6, 1991. All subsequent appeals have been fruitless and at the age of 65 he has the dubious honor of being one of the oldest prisoners on Florida’s death row — one who has spent almost one-third of his life there.
Ironically, Trepal got his wish. After Peggy died, the Carr family moved out of state.