Days after Peggy Carr sipped from a poisoned eight-pack of Coca-Cola, her hair began to fall out, her feet felt like fire and she could no longer walk.
Before lapsing into a 3-month coma from which she would never awake, she kept asking “Why?”
It’s a question investigators spent more than two years trying to answer and prosecutors a month trying to prove.
Earlier this month, a jury convicted the meek, self-styled genius who lived next door, George James Trepal.
The panel also recommended the electric chair for the 42-year-old computer programmer, chemistry buff and high-IQ Mensa club member who prosecutors said tried to pull off the “perfect crime.”
“Here’s a man who thought he was so smart he could literally get away with murder,” said prosecutor John Aguero. “I think he actually believed, because of his intellectual level, he would never be found out.”
Authorities maintained that Trepal was fed up with his neighbors’ loud music, noisy off-road bikes, barking dogs and other aggravations that built up over eight years in the orange grove-dotted community of Alturas in west-central Florida.
So in October, 1988, he spiked 16-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola Classic with thallium nitrate, a highly toxic heavy metal, and somehow sneaked them into his neighbor’s kitchen, prosecutors said.
Carr, a slight 41-year-old waitress, at first didn’t know what was causing her nausea, and the pain in her feet and legs. A week went by before her husband, Parearlyn, carried her like a baby into Winter Haven Hospital.
The poison left Carr unable to speak, but she knew sign language because her parents were deaf. Through her sister, she attempted to communicate.
“She asked why,” testified her sister, Shirley Martin. “She kept wanting to know why.”
Just before Carr lapsed into a coma, a lab test confirmed that she had been poisoned with thallium, which the federal Environmental Protection Agency banned as a rat poison in the early 1970s.
Four other members of Carr’s family were poisoned, but not fatally. Carr died March 3, 1989.
Trepal first became a suspect in December, 1988, during routine community interviews. Most friends and neighbors had no clue as to why the Carrs would be poisoned, but Trepal was quick to volunteer his theory.
“Somebody wanted them to move out,” Polk County Detective Ernie Mincey quoted Trepal as saying. “That was the reason they were poisoned.”
“He appeared to be extremely nervous,” Mincey said. “He was visibly shaking.”
Detectives said Trepal’s response bore a resemblance to a threatening typewritten note the Carrs received a few months before they were poisoned: “You and all your so-called family have two weeks to move out of Florida forever or else you all die. This is no joke.”
In an unusual move, an undercover agent was assigned to befriend Trepal while posing as a member of his Mensa group.
“Once I got to know him, I found him very funny and witty,” said the agent, Susan Goreck. “But what also came out was how he backed away from people he had a problem with. That fits the profile of the poisoner perfectly, someone who is going to do something underhanded because it’s nonconfrontational.”
During Mensa’s murder mystery weekends, Trepal organized fantasy scenarios that were eerily similar to the reality that befell his neighbors.
“When a death threat appears on the doorstep, prudent people throw out all their food and watch what they eat,” Trepal wrote in a booklet presented at the April, 1989, event. “Most items on the doorstep are just a neighbor’s way of saying, ‘I don’t like you. Move out or else.’ ”
The undercover agent developed a seven-month friendship with Trepal and even rented the home Trepal and his wife moved from soon after the poisonings.
In the garage of Trepal’s house, authorities found a small vial containing trace amounts of thallium nitrate. They arrested him last spring.
Further searches turned up other chemicals and literally thousands of books and journals, one titled “General Poisoning Guides.”
A background check showed that Trepal served two years in federal prison in the mid-1970s for his role in an illegal methamphetamine lab in North Carolina. Thallium is used in the production of such drugs.
“To believe Mr. Trepal to be innocent,” Aguero said in his closing arguments, “you would have to believe all of these things to just be pure coincidences.”
That’s what the defense argued: that because the state presented a circumstantial case with no physical evidence, there was reasonable doubt of his guilt. Trepal’s defense team offered no case.
Jurors convicted Trepal, who’s awaiting sentencing in Polk County Jail, of first-degree murder, six counts of attempted first-degree murder and product-tampering charges. A judge will decide March 6 whether he should get the death penalty or life imprisonment.