Charges Filed in Poisoning Case

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former county toxicologist wept Wednesday as prosecutors filed charges that could bring the death penalty if she is convicted of using her expertise to poison her husband and then trying to cover up the crime.

"I do, Your Honor," Kristin Rossum said in a barely audible voice when asked by the judge whether she agreed with her lawyer's request for a delay in her arraignment.

Rossum, 24, is charged with murdering her 26-year-old husband, Gregory DeVillers, with an overdose of a powerful painkiller stolen from the county medical examiner's office, where she worked.

Authorities say DeVillers threatened to tell medical examiner Dr. Brian Blackbourne that Rossum was a methamphetamine user, was stealing the drug from the office storeroom and was having an affair with her boss, Michael Robertson, the head toxicologist.

After the court proceeding, Rossum's father, Ralph Rossum, a professor at Claremont-McKenna College, told reporters that authorities are "making a victim of our daughter, who lost a husband. . . . She does not have it in her to commit these charges. These charges are devastating."

Authorities allege that Rossum tried to cover up her crime by convincing authorities that DeVillers committed suicide and that she plotted to prevent them from detecting the lethal drug in his system.

Rossum authorized her husband's organs to be removed for transplantation and sections of his skin to be stripped away for use in grafts for burn victims.

Both actions made it more difficult to determine the cause of death, court documents said. The painkiller may have been introduced into DeVillers' body by a drug-soaked patch while he slept; several such patches were missing from the medical examiner's office.

Superior Court Judge David Szumowski delayed arraignment until Monday, when Rossum will be required to enter a plea. Arrested Monday after an eight-month investigation, she remains in jail.

Prosecutors filed special-circumstances allegations of murder by poison that could lead to the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

DeVillers died Nov. 6 in an off-campus apartment owned by UC San Diego that he shared with his wife. Rossum told police that he died in his sleep. Police were suspicious because, among other things, the body was surrounded by rose petals.

Jerome DeVillers, 25, said his brother knew that Rossum had a drug habit before they married in June 1999.

"I think he thought he was rescuing her. . . . They were in love for some time, and then something happened," he said. "I don't have all the pieces to the puzzle. But I hope by questioning her, the truth will come out."

Court documents say Rossum began an affair with Robertson, a nationally known toxicologist, soon after he was hired last June.

Robertson and Rossum were fired in December after authorities discovered--as part of the investigation of DeVillers' death--that Rossum was a drug user and that Robertson had violated county policy by not informing superiors.

Since being fired, Robertson has returned to his native Australia and is attempting to reconcile with his wife, authorities said. Police Lt. Ray Sigwalt said Robertson also remains a suspect in the case.

Tests done by a Los Angeles laboratory concluded that DeVillers died of an overdose of fentanyl. The drug is so rarely used that most medical examiners do not even test for its presence, court documents said.

During a search of Rossum's apartment, articles about fentanyl were seized.

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Times staff writer Margaret Talev and correspondent Paul Levikow contributed to this story.

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