The story of Dr. Carl A. Coppolino, a wealthy physician and convicted murderer, has it all: multiple suspicious deaths occurring years and a thousand miles apart, money, sex, undetectable poison, hypnotic influences, betrayals and groundbreaking science involving rabbits and frogs.
In fact when the story that a doctor had been indicted for a pair of murders in two states broke in 1966, The New York Times described it this way: “No motives were disclosed in either case, but it was indicated that robbery or revenge was not a factor in either murder. One source here today described the slayings as ‘right out of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.'”
In the early 1960s Carl Coppolino and his wife, Carmela, were a well-off, upwardly mobile 30-something couple living in the seaside community of Middletown Township, Monmouth County, New Jersey. Carl practiced as an anesthesiologist while Carmela was a medical doctor herself working in pharmaceutical research for a New Jersey drug company.
In 1962, however, Carl developed a heart condition that apparently kept him from actively practicing his craft. He shifted his interest to research, writing, and hypnotherapy for people interested in quitting smoking or losing weight. His books, The Practice of Hypnosis in Anesthesiology and The Billion Dollar Hangover both garnered attention at the time of their publication.
Whether or not Carl actually had a heart condition — and there was evidence introduced at his Florida trial that he did not — it was his disturbing behavior at Riverview Hospital in Red Bank that no doubt contributed to his separation. It turns out that same year Carl came to the attention of the FBI after threatening letters were sent to a nurse-anesthetist. It was after this investigation that he left Riverview. The environment was so hostile to the victim that she moved out of state.
However, $22,000 in annual disability payments from an insurance policy (about $170k in current dollars) and royalties from his books, along with Carmela’s salary as a research physician, ensured that they were able to maintain a luxurious lifestyle.
Living across the street from the Coppolinos were Lt. Col. William E. Farber, a career Army officer, and his wife, Marjorie. Although the Farbers were both nearly 20 years older than the doctors, the families became quite close. The relationship began in 1962 when Carl began hypnotizing Marjorie to help her quit smoking.
It eventually blossomed into an affair between Carl and Marjorie. Soon the doctor’s sessions became more passionate, she said. According to her testimony at one of Carl’s trials, Marjorie said after a few sessions she felt a “strong feeling to be close to him.”
“We were in each other’s arms, kissing. The next day we became intimate,” she told the court under questioning by Monmouth County Prosecutor Vincent P. Keuper.
The Death of William Farber
Lt. Col. Bill Farber died on July 30, 1963.
According to Carl, the doctor was asleep at home with his wife when they were awakened by Marjorie on the phone. Bill was ill, she said.
After dressing and heading across the street, “I saw the colonel right away,” Carl said. “He was pale, he was perspiring profusely, he was gasping for breath, and he was holding his heart. He said he felt weak and that he could hardly move.”
The doctor was describing textbook symptoms of a heart attack.
Carl said he insisted that the colonel go to the hospital, but that both Marjorie and Bill rejected the idea.
“I asked Mrs. Farber to call for an ambulance, but she refused to,” he said. “When I left, he seemed to be better, improved, but he certainly wasn’t well.”
Four hours later, at 10 a.m., the doctor returned to the neighbors to repeat his advice that Bill go to the hospital. He said that when he came into the Farber house, the couple was arguing. When his patient refused to follow his advice, Carl indicated that he was “withdrawing from the case,” asked Marjorie to sign a release. Marjorie signed the paper. Later she would identify the signature as hers, but claimed she had no recollection of signing it.
On the evening of the 30th, Carmela Coppolino received a call summoning her to the Farbers. Carl followed soon after, he said.
“When I got there, I found Bill in bed on his back,” Carl testified in his defense. “He was dead. He had been dead from three to five hours.”
Carmela signed Bill’s death certificate, listing the cause of death as coronary thrombosis — essentially a blood clot in the arteries surrounding the heart.
“Where did she get the information from?” Carl was asked.
“From me,” he replied.
I hearby certify that I attended the deceased from 3:30 a.m. to 6: a.m. and that I last saw the deceased alive at 1:30 p.m. on July 30, 1963 and that death occurred at approximately 4 p.m. from…coronary thrombosis.
When Carmela’s father, Dr. Carmello Musetto, learned that his daughter filed — let’s call it what it is — a fraudulent death certificate, he said he was livid.
“My God,” he said he told her. “I didn’t bring you up that way. That kind of treatment went out with high-button shoes.”
Eventually, Carmela’s actions helped bring her husband to justice. During the investigation into Bill Farber’s death, attention on Carl was quickly brought to bear when police discovered that his death had not been reported to the county coroner as required when someone dies outside a hospital and the death certificate had been signed by an ineligible physician. New Jersey law required that any physician who signs a death certificate must be a “practicing” doctor. Apparently, Carmela’s status as a researcher did not qualify her to sign certificates.
The Lieutenant Colonel was interred in Arlington National Cemetery.
According to Marjorie, Bill’s death was a long-term project. As their affair progressed, Marjorie said, Carl began telling her repeatedly that her husband needed to be out of the picture.
“‘He has got to go, he’s got to go,’ over and over,” she testified, implying that the doctor was trying to exert some kind of hypnotic control over her.
If her story is to be believed he probably did have some kind of Svengali-like influence, although it is a well-known fact that a person under hypnosis cannot be forced against their will to do something. On the stand, under oath, Marjorie made a series of statements against her own interests describing how Carl was able to manipulate her.
At the doctor’s trial in New Jersey, Marjorie acted as if Carl still had some control over her. The Times described it this way:
In her description of how Dr. Coppolino had hypnotized her, Mrs. Farber seemed to go into a trance herself on the stand. Her head slouched to one side and her eyes closed. Mr. (F. Lee) Bailey, meanwhile, leaned forward from his seat in front of her and snapped his fingers again and again in an apparent attempt to arouse her.
Carl apparently wore down Marjorie’s resolve. Three days before Farber died, Marjorie testified, Carl gave her a syringe and vial filled with an anesthetic that he said was a relaxant and gesturing hypnotically, ordered her to kill her husband. Despite being under the doctor’s hypnotic command, Marjorie said she was unable to bring herself to kill her husband.
“I got rid of it,” she testified at Carl’s trial for her husband’s murder. “I just…this was very objectionable. I just couldn’t do this thing, so I threw it out.”
Marjorie said on the stand that soon she was ready to try again. Without the anesthetic, she was forced to concoct her own poison. While Bill slumbered Marjorie took the syringe and injected it into his thigh.
“He jumped up, complained of a ‘charley horse’ and groped his way to the bathroom” where he became sick, she said.
Marjorie called Carl over and recalled on the stand that his “eyes were popping out of his head.”
“The bastard’s got to go,” she said Carl was saying. “He’s got to die.”
The doctor grabbed a pillow and smothered her husband, Marjorie said.
“He told me that if I ever did anything about my husband’s death that, first, nobody would believe me and, secondly, and more important to me, was that he would have me declared insane and institutionalized,” Marjorie testified later.
Then he called Carmela, described by prosecutors in New Jersey as “an innocent dupe,” who filled out the death certificate.
The Death of Dr. Carmela Coppolino
Following the burial of Lieutenant. Col. Farber, the Coppolinos sold their property in New Jersey and moved south to Longboat Key, near Sarasota. The relationship between Marjorie and the Coppolinos was still strong enough that Marjorie also sold her home and moved to Longboat Key. While there, she asked the couple to stand as godparents for her children when the family converted to Catholicism.
By 1965, however, the 35-year-old Carl had moved on and began dating Mary Gibson, 52, a wealthy widow. Not surprisingly, this did not sit well with Marjorie, by then 54 years old. There were allegations of stalking. At one point Carl complained of Marjorie’s “Gestapo methods of spying on him.”
Meanwhile, this time without Marjorie’s help, Carl was getting ready to end his marriage to Carmela, one way or another. Apparently not a romantic guy, Carl waited until August 18, 1965, the couple’s anniversary, to tell Carmela he no longer loved her, according to Marjorie’s testimony. Just how Carmela responded we will never know, but ten days later, she was dead.
Carl called Carmela’s family back in New Jersey and broke the news that she had died of a “massive coronary occlusion.” Later, Carl lied to Carmela’s father, Dr. Musetto, saying that the Sarasota County medical examiner had performed an autopsy and found a “severe heart condition.”
Carmela’s death certificate was signed by Dr. Juliet Karow, who told authorities that she was summoned to the palatial Coppolino home in Longboat Key, but that the doctor was dead before she arrived. Again, the physician of record assigned the cause of death to be coronary occlusion. Like Carmela, Dr. Karow received her information from Carl. If she saw the injection site on her patient’s left buttock, she never said.
From the get-go Dr. Carmello Musetto refused to believe that his healthy 34-year-old daughter had simply keeled over from a heart attack and he was telling this to anyone who would listen. He told authorities in Florida that his daughter had never had any signs of heart ailments.
Indeed, as neighbors watched the ambulance and police arrive at the home, they were sure that Carl’s heart condition had finally caught up with him.
“When Dr. Karow told me that it was Mrs. Coppolino who was dead, I blurted out ‘you mean Mr. Coppolino,” said neighbor George Thompson at Coppolino’s Florida trial.
Dr. Carmela Coppolino was buried in New Jersey.
Six weeks later, much to the shock and surprise of everyone — particularly Marjorie Farber — Carl married Mary Gibson. With her fortune and the $65,000 insurance Carl collected for his wife’s death (approximately $450k in current dollars), the couple was quite comfortable.
Two Murder Investigations
A pair of murders notwithstanding, rejecting Marjorie’s affections was the biggest mistake that Carl Coppolino committed.
After Carl was married to his rich widow, he approached Marjorie and offered her the position of housekeeper in his home. Just what his motivation was we will probably never know, but Marjorie was not going to take that kind of insult lying down. Instead of accepting the housekeeping position, Marjorie returned to New Jersey and went straight to the cops.
She did it, she said, because she feared Carl would kill again.
“I thought this man might possibly want to kill his present wife,” she said on the stand in New Jersey.
“So you’re here now to protect the present Mrs. Coppolino?” asked defense attorney Bailey.
“Yes, and maybe even myself,” she replied.
Marjorie had no idea that investigators in two states were already looking at Dr. Carl Coppolino as a possible killer, but they were stumped as to the method he used to kill Carmela. The jilted lover provided the final piece of the puzzle when she told them about the drug Carl had given her to use on her husband.
Investigators quickly settled on succinylcholine, a drug used by anesthesiologists in patients undergoing surgery. Succinylcholine is a muscle relaxant which causes apnea, or the inability to breath. Breathing is maintained artificially during surgery. In 1966, however, even a lethal dose of the anesthetic was nearly untraceable because it breaks down in the body so quickly.
In Florida, Carmello Musetto’s five months of insistence that his daughter was much too healthy to die at 35 from a heart attack, along with the lies Carl told him about the autopsy that never happened, prompted authorities in Sarasota to exhume her body and perform the belated autopsy.
Because Carmela was interred in Jersey, the Monmouth authorities were tasked with the examination.
New Jersey officials requested the assistance of New York City Chief Medical Examiner Milton Helpern who by that time in his three decades as a forensic pathologist had performed nearly 20,000 autopsies and participated in an additional 48,000. Reading the file, Helpern was convinced that Carmela had been murdered.
“I found no evidence of disease of the body,” Helpern testified. “I found no explanation of death from the condition of her organs. I would say with reasonable medical certainty she did not die of coronary occlusion or any type of heart disease.”
Beyond that, however, Helpern could not say how Carmela died.
Circumstantial evidence that proved Carl had possession of succinylcholine chloride, plus Marjorie’s insistence that the deadly doctor had given her a syringe full of the stuff to kill Bill and the injection wound led the ME to suspect that the anesthetic was the means of death.
The problem was proving it. For that, Helpern turned to toxicologist Dr. Charles Joseph Umberger.
Umberger believed that succinylcholine in a massive amount could not be broken down by the body fast enough before death occurs, so traces of the drug’s components should still be traceable in the corpse.
Umberger began by performing a general presumptive test for trace evidence of certain drugs or poisons. The tests were negative.
In addition to Umberger, several other scientists were looking at the problem. One, Dr. Malcolm B. Gilman, ME of Monmouth County, injected succinylcholine into rabbits and bullfrogs at his home in Colts Neck, before subjecting their tissues to chemical and spectroscopic analysis.
Dr. Bert La Du, Jr., at the time chairman of the pharmacology department at New York University medical college, tested samples of tissue near the injection site and the needle’s track through subcutaneous fat.
After months of trying established tests and developing new ones, the physicians had identified two chemicals in Marjorie’s body that could be linked back to the anesthetic: succinylmonocholine and succinic acid. The first was found mostly in the fatty tissue adjacent to the needle track with a much smaller amount in the injection-site tissue. The second was found in Carmela’s brain.
Based on the findings in Carmela’s autopsy, New Jersey officials exhumed the colonel’s body, expecting to find the same chemicals. Unfortunately for investigators, Bill had been in the ground for years and the tests were at best inconclusive. Helpern, however, discovered the colonel had a fractured windpipe, which he ruled was caused by homicidal violence.
The Trials of Dr. Carl Coppolino
New Jersey and Florida each raced to be first to indict and try Carl Coppolino for murder and eventually New Jersey came out on top.
Although the trials featured the same players, the two trials were quite different affairs. In the Jersey trial, Helpern went mano a mano with defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, who tried to establish that there was no murder at all.
“Death resulted from compression of the nexk, as indicated by the double fracture of the cricoid cartilage,” Helpern said on the stand. “It had a particular feel. It was broken in two places. It had the feeling of a dented ping pong ball.”
On cross examination, Bailey was unable to get Helpern to admit a cricoid cartilage could be broken during an autopsy, when the sides of a coffin cave in, or when “a spade was driven into the victim’s neck.”
“I would have seen that,” Helpern replied drily.
Helpern told jurors he had seen injuries like Bill’s caused by the heel of a hand pressing on a pillow covering a face.
With a star witness who seemed to lapse into trances on the stand and only the speculation of Helpern about how the cricoid cartilage was broken, the prosecution’s case was weak and few observers were surprised when Carl was acquitted of killing Lieut. Col Farber.
One of the jurors told The New York Times that on the first ballot eight members of the jury believed no murder had occurred, one was undecided and the three others believed the doctor guilty. Five successive ballots resulted in a unanimous verdict of not guilty.
Carl did not go free. Asked by reporters if Mary Gibson Coppolino would be able to spend any time with her husband that night, Prosecutor Keuper, smarting from his loss, said “Not unless she breaks into the jail.”
Although he was out on a $15,000 bond in Florida so he could attend his Jersey trial, he was taken to the airport the next day and accompanied by detectives to Sarasota where he was turned over to the Florida cops.
It was the tests of Umberger, La Du and Gilman that were the center of attention in the Florida trial. Bailey tried to argue that the tests had not been sufficiently vetted and did not deserve the confidence of the jury.
“Why make the defendant a guinea pig for experiments that are not even publishable?” Bailey asked the jury, referring to a statement he elicited on cross-examination from Umberger who said he did not consider his tests “complete enough for publication in a scientific journal.”
Jurors believed the scientists and after three hours of deliberating, announced that they found the doctor guilty of killing his wife.
Coppolino appeared stunned by the verdict.
“I just don’t understand,” he muttered as he was taken away in cuffs.
Bailey was equally surprised by the verdict of second degree murder.
“It’s absolutely impossible to have a second-degree poisoning,” he told the press. “This verdict is a flat compromise. This jury has just acquitted the defendant of first-degree murder and when the appellate court throws out the second-degree murder verdict it will be the end of the case.”
The Florida Court of Appeals disagreed with Bailey: “If the evidence is sufficient to support a verdict of guilty of the offense charged, the jury has the power, (under Florida law) to find the accused guilty of a lesser degree of the offense regardless of the lack of evidence as to such degree.”
Carl Coppolino was sentenced to life in prison, but ended up serving just 12 years. Upon his release he was greeted by his wife, Mary, who stood by him while he served his sentence.
In a 1980 interview with NBC, Carl, continuing to claim innocence, blamed his conviction on a poor performance by F. Lee Bailey. The interview was part of his publicity tour for his book, The Crime That Never Was, described by the New York Daily News as “a narcissistic spin on his villainy that blamed everyone but himself for his ignominious life.”