Bitter Pill Pt. II: Retracing The Case

Detectives Try To Gather New Evidence

Cindy Hamilton was paid a $250,000 reward for her help in the case against her mother. The reward money came from a drug manufacturer's trade association. During the trial, the reward was never brought into evidence.

Stella's lawyer said nothing about the reward because a deal was made. The defense agreed not to cross-examine Cindy about the reward. In return, the prosecution agreed not to reveal that Cindy said she came forward when she heard her mother failed a polygraph.

"My belief is that the polygraph was a ruse to try and coerce a confession out of her," says Stella's new lawyer, Carl Colbert. Colbert says that he has never seen the polygraph graph, although he has asked to. Her first lawyer also asked to see it, and never did.

The detectives also question how she first became a suspect. She originally called police and turned over two bottles of Excedrin. "Why in the world would she have a second bottle of contaminated capsules just sitting there waiting to hand over to law enforcement," asks Farr.

The police say Stella told them she bought them at different times, probably at different stores. Stella denies this, and says she told them she didn't know where she had bought the bottles. Stella's friend A.J. Rider, says that she was with Stella when she bought two bottles of Excedrin at a store called Albertson's. The government says all required documents were handed over.

The detectives discovered an FBI memo that seems to support Rider's account. It was found among a thousand pages never turned over to the defense. In these documents, there are reports about other possible suspects and mysterious fingerprints on Sue Snow's bottle. Another memo mentions that Stella's two Excedrin bottles came from one store, Albertsons. The FBI refused to comment.

Rider was never called to testify. She lived with the Nickells months before Bruce died. But by the time of the trial, Rider says, the FBI had convinced her that her friend was the killer. She refused to help the defense team. A few years later, though, she had a change of heart. "It all just kind of dawned on me, wait a minute, this was a whole setup," she says.

Farr and Ciolino talked to other people who were also rewarded for their role in the case. Stella's neighbor, Sandy Scott, became a spy for the FBI. She was paid $7,500. She even searched Stella's home for algae destroyer. She found none, something the jury never heard. Noonan, the fish store manager, was paid a $15,000 reward.

Stella is not perfect: She once served four months in jail for check fraud. When Cindy was 9, Stella was charged with hitting her with a curtain rod, bruising her legs. Stella denies abusing her children: "(Hamilton) wasn't feeling good. She wanted to stay home. There was nothing wrong with her. I sent her to school; she told the nurse I had beat her that morning. They arrested me and I was only in jail overnight."

Stella, who was ordered to go to counseling, says her daugher was jealous of her.

Farr and Ciolino believe that finding Hamilton is the key to their case. After searching for months, they found her in Southern California. Over a few weeks, Farr met with her twice. She said that she didn't testify for the reward.

They are not sure where the dialogue will lead. "She can sometimes be very, very skillfully evasive," says Farr.

She stands by her testimony that her mother had talked about killing Bruce, though she never said Stella confessed. She told Farr that she is not sure her mother is really guilty.

On the basis of their new findings, Stella's legal team filed a request for a new trial. This third attempt to reopen the case was later denied. Police investigators and the federal government still firmly believe she is guilty. The detectives say they simply don't know who the killer is.

"It's entirely possible that the real killer is walking around somewhere out there," says Farr. "But more importantly, I know who didn't do it and that's Stella Nickell."

Go back to the beginning of the story, Bitter Pill.

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