An 18-month investigation into a Sudafed tampering case that killed two Western Washington residents and made another seriously ill has culminated in federal charges against the initial victim's husband.
Joseph Meling, 31, under suspicion for more than a year, was arrested without incident at his Lacey home early yesterday afternoon, federal authorities said. He was scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court today to face charges stemming from the tampering case.
Neighbors said up to a dozen armed FBI agents took Meling into custody at his two-story townhouse in Lacey. Present at the time of the arrest was his wife, Jennifer, the first victim of the Sudafed poisoning cases.
Meling was calm but his wife appeared distraught as Meling was led away by lawmen, one neighbor said. The neighbor said the Melings have lived in the two-story townhouse for about nine months and are not well-known in the subdivision, largely populated by families of military personnel stationed at Fort Lewis and other nearby bases.
The arrest capped a federal investigation into the deaths of Kathleen Daneker, 40, of Tacoma, and Stan McWhorter, 44, of Lacey, who took cyanide-filled capsules that had been tucked into Sudafed packages and placed on store shelves in Pierce and Thurston counties.
Meling's attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., said Meling will plead not guilty to all charges. A charge of causing a person's death by product tampering carries a sentence of up to life in prison.
Meling had been expecting the arrest for months, according to a close friend, John Berger, of Vancouver, Wash.
"It's been kind of a depressing experience knowing the FBI is hounding you for something you didn't do," said Berger, adding that he's convinced of his friend's innocence.
Berger, a Clark County PUD appliance repairman who's known Meling for 10 years, said he was twice called to testify before a grand jury examining the case and he's heard some of the government's evidence.
"If they have much of a case - anything more than circumstantial evidence - they wouldn't let a guy walk around on the street for a year and a half," he said.
AN EARLY TARGET
Jennifer Meling, a 29-year-old schoolteacher, collapsed Feb. 2, 1991, after taking a cyanide-filled capsule at the Tumwater apartment where the couple then lived. She was rushed to a local hospital, where doctors said she nearly died.
Within two weeks, Daneker and McWhorter died after taking cyanide-filled capsules from Sudafed packages purchased at stores in the Tacoma and Olympia areas.
The case triggered a nationwide recall of Sudafed 12 Hour capsules and a state campaign to boost awareness of product tampering.
In addition to the capsules consumed by the three victims, three more capsules containing cyanide were found in Sudafed packages pulled from drugstore shelves in the Tacoma area.
Noting that all the tainted capsules were from stores close to Interstate 5, officials speculated one person may have placed them during a drive between Tacoma and Olympia in an attempt to divert the attention of authorities from his intended victim.
Meling, who worked as an insurance salesman, became an early target of the investigation. His home was searched at least twice by police and the FBI; employment records were subpoenaed from a Vancouver newspaper where Meling had worked from 1986 to 1988.
A REASON FOR INTEREST
Adding to authorities' interest in Meling were records of a domestic-violence complaint by Jennifer Meling six weeks before the poisoning incident.
According to a Tumwater police report, Jennifer Meling called 911 on a Saturday afternoon. She told officers who went to the home that she and her husband had been arguing when he "grabbed her arm from behind and escorted her out of the room."
The report said neither wanted to discuss the argument and Jennifer Meling did not feel she was assaulted, so no arrest was made.
While she was still recovering from the poisoning, Jennifer Meling filed for divorce and moved into her parents' home in Southwest Washington. Later last year, however, the divorce petition was withdrawn and the couple reconciled.
Police took Joseph Meling to an Olympia hospital for mental-health observation shortly after his wife filed for divorce because co-workers found notes he had written indicating he might kill himself.
At the time of the tampering incidents, Joseph Meling was a financial adviser and salesman for Prudential Insurance Co., a job he has since left.
Michael Thomas, who supervised Meling at the insurance office, said Meling was a fine worker. "I hope their investigation finds this not to be true," Thomas said, adding that the alleged poisonings "would be totally out of character for him."
EARLIER CASE SIMILAR
Profiting from an insurance policy was the motive in a 1986 drug-tampering incident that bears similarities to the Sudafed case.
In the earlier case, Stella Nickell of Auburn was convicted of killing her husband, Bruce, and an Auburn woman, Sue Snow, by putting cyanide into Extra Strength Excedrin capsules.
That case also took 18 months to produce an arrest. Nickell became the first person convicted under a federal law of death by product tampering; she was sentenced to 90 years in prison. An article detailing how the FBI solved that crime appeared in the February 1991 issue of Reader's Digest.
Shortly after his wife became ill, Meling realized he would be examined as a suspect.
"I've been going through a lot," he told a reporter. "As a spouse, I had to be cleared of this, all natural suspicions and all that crap."
Meling told police he had purchased the Sudafed at an Olympia Drug Emporium drugstore.
After Meling's arrest yesterday, S. Jane McWhorter, widow of one of the tampering victims, said, "We have the usual reaction of relief. We're glad to see that this all might be over." She said her attorneys asked her not to comment further.
The McWhorter and Daneker families recently reached an out-of-court settlement in their lawsuit against Burroughs Wellcome Co., the North Carolina-based maker of Sudafed. All parties have agreed not to disclose terms of the settlement.
-- Times staff reporters Peter Lewis, Joe Haberstroh and Jim Simon contributed to this report.