Food poisoning as a murder weapon shows up frequently in TV shows and in movies. PBS said the defining moment of the Cadfael mystery series came in the Monk’s Hood episode, when canny sleuth Brother Cadfael announces, “This is no ordinary death. Master Bonell died of poison taken in food recently,” speaking to Bonnell’s family after he dies at the dinner table.
And commercial TV detectives see their own share of these cases, such as when TV detective Jessica Fletcher – played by Angela Lansbury on CBS – had to solve a food poisoning murder in her fictional hometown of Cabot Cove.
Food poisoning is part of the arsenal when murder writers produce a script.
But in reality, the typical homicide detective in the U.S. may go through his or her entire career without ever investigating a single case in which food poisoning was used as a murder weapon.
Homicide data maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shows only 11 cases involving any kind of poisoning in 2010, a year when 12,996 murders occurred in the U.S. Guns, knives, blunt objects and just plain old force are the murder weapons of choice in America.
And it isn’t even known how many of the 11 poisoning cases—just 0.084 percent of the total— involved the use of food or water to transmit the toxin. The FBI’s report on homicides for the year says one of the poisoning cases involved a babysitter killing a child, and two others involved arguments, but there were no details for the eight others.
Last week, however, charges against a suspect in the grisly murder of 18-year-old University of Florida student Christian Aquilar were amended to include poisoning that some reports say involves food or water as the transmission method.
Santa Fe College student Pedro Bravo is charged with first degree murder “by suffocating and poisoning (Aquilar) by some manner unknown.” Under Florida law, poisoning can involve any chemical compound with the intent to kill or injure.
Aquilar and Brave were classmates at the same Miami preparatory school. Before he went missing on Sept. 20, Aquilar was dating Bravo’s former girlfriend. Bravo told police the two former classmates got into a fight and he pushed Aquilar out of his truck and left him along side the road.
On Oct. 20, hunters came across the remains of the missing UF student about 60 miles south of the Gainesville campus in Florida’s Levy County near Cedar Key. Once autopsied, State Attorney Bill Cervone amended the charges.
He told local media the state now has evidence a chemical compound was used to sedate the victim so suspect could do the fatal injuries. The Gainesville Sun, citing a source close to the case, said the substance used was an over-the-counter drug that in the right amount would render whoever consumed it incapable of fending off an attack.
Bravo was taken into custody on Sept. 24 and remains at the Alachua County Jail, awaiting trial.
In an analysis of ten years of murder data, the Wall Street Journal found that the rate of food poisoning is just as low as what the FBI found in a single year of numbers, but WSJ added some detail. From 2000 to 2010, there were just 130 murders involving poison of all sorts.
Many of these cases in which food or water was used as a vehicle for poison involved an attack by one family member on another.
Of the 130 victims, 21 were sons, 13 were wives, 12 were daughters, 8 were husbands, 7 were friends, 6 were mothers, 5 were boyfriends, 4 were other family members, 3 were girlfriends, 2 were in-laws, 1 was a stepson and 1 was an ex-husband.
Killers also poisoned 16 acquaintances, 12 victims known to to the killer but with whom the killer had no relationship, and in 24 cases the relationship was unknown.
While murder is generally a male-dominated crime, the male-female split among those who use poison as a weapon is much more even, coming in at 71-62.
Still, the 130 poison murders account for only 0.078 percent of the 165,068 murders that occurred during the 10-year period.
Food poisoning does kill in far greater numbers than murder statistics will indicate. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta estimates that that roughly 1 in 6 Americans gets sick—about 48 million a year—and 128,000 are hospitalized, while 3,000 are killed by food poisoning.
Those deaths of course are not defined as murder, largely because they are not intentional or targeted at a specific individual, but result from breakdowns in the food safety system.
Food poisoning has also been used as a weapon to injure, not just to kill.
One infamous case occurred in 1984 when the commune followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh spiked the salad bars of local restaurants in The Dalles, OR area with the potentially deadly Salmonella Typhimurium, cooked up in the commune’s laboratory.
The perpetrators’ goal was to make local residents sick so that they would not participate in county elections. The group succeeded in making 751 ill and sending 45 to area hospitals. No one died from the food poisoning/bioterrorism incident.