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Fatal Mystery Illness Now Looks Like Poisoning : Death: Linda L. Curry’s case left doctors without a clue. New tests point to a deadly dose of nicotine.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A dozen doctors tried for a year to find out what was making Linda L. Curry ill, but numerous medical tests failed to identify the cause of the mystery illness that disabled her for days at a time.

When Curry died on June 10, 1994, the doctors did not have a clue about what killed her. Instead of listing a cause of death, the death certificate said it was “pending investigation.”

“They came up with a lot of false leads and went down different paths,” said Paul M. Curry, talking about the doctors’ frustrating attempts to find out what was making his wife sick. “But every diagnosis led back to where they started. Nobody could tell us why she kept getting sick.”

Now, almost one year after the 50-year-old woman’s death, investigators finally have a clue about the cause. Toxicology tests showed that Linda Curry died from nicotine poisoning, and investigators have launched a murder investigation, said Orange County sheriff’s homicide detective Bob Russell.

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Besides being the addictive agent in tobacco, nicotine also used to be a common ingredient in pesticides and a frequent source of accidental contamination. However, experts said that nicotine murders are rare.

What makes Linda Curry’s death more intriguing is the fact that she did not smoke.

“She was a nonsmoker. I’m not convinced that she died from nicotine poisoning,” said Paul Curry, 38. “I’m not convinced that this diagnosis is any different from the long list of others that we got before she died. They were all wrong.”

The Currys were married for two years and met while working at the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant. Linda Curry, who also was known by her maiden name, Linda Kinkade, was a 27-year Southern California Edison employee and training coordinator at the plant.

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Paul Curry was a contract employee at San Onofre whose contract expired in February, said Edison spokesman David Barron. In a telephone interview, Paul Curry said he was a nuclear engineer; Barron said he was listed in company records as a plant equipment operator.

The year that his wife spent looking for a cure was a “terribly frustrating experience,” Paul Curry said.

“There were times when she was getting better. Those were the high times,” he said. “But then she’d get sick for a few days again. We saw a dozen doctors who diagnosed everything; hantavirus, hepatitis, chronic renal failure and even neurological disorders. It was well beyond my understanding and frustrating to her as well. Neither of us understood any of it.”

Stephen Glenn, a neighbor who knew the couple for about five years, said he was at the hospital with Paul Curry when doctors told him his wife was dead.

“The doctors didn’t have a clue what killed her. They didn’t know anything except that she died,” Glenn said.

Linda Curry complained of frequent dizziness and fatigue, but those symptoms were frequently attributed to the “12- to 14-hour days she put in at work,” Glenn said.

Curry died on a Friday a few minutes after midnight, after coming home from work early on Thursday because she was not feeling well, said Glenn.

Paul Curry said his wife was scheduled to go to the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla the following Monday for additional tests. He said he is still trying to come to terms with what happened and is “researching everything about nicotine to understand how it could’ve killed her.”

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Nicotine, whether it is ingested in pure form or in tobacco, causes the same reaction in people, said Dr. Ashok Jain, a toxicology expert and poison-control official at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center.

“It’s a very strong poison and the victim usually vomits after ingesting it,” he said.

Because of this defensive reaction by the body, nicotine may not make a very effective poison to kill someone, Jain added.

Nevertheless, sheriff’s detective Russell said Linda Curry’s death is being investigated as a homicide, but investigators have not ruled out suicide. “The investigation is still in its infancy and there are several suspects,” he said, declining to elaborate.

Friends said the Currys were animal lovers who took in stray dogs and cats. Glenn said that veterinarians frequently came to the couple’s home to treat their pets.

“We were rescuers,” Paul Curry said. “She was good at picking up strays. I was one of them.”


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