WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - In the last weeks of his life, Robert Curley lay in a hospital bed, tethered by leather straps, writhing in agony from an affliction that defied diagnosis.
When tests finally revealed he had 900 times the lethal dose of thallium coursing through his body and swelling his brain, it was too late. Curley, 32, was already comatose and hooked to a respirator.
His wife, Joann, who was at her husband's side through most of his suffering, agreed with doctors to give him his peace by removing him from life support.
Investigators discovered that the cooler of iced tea he carried to work each day was contaminated with thallium, a heavy metal commonly used in rat poison. Over the past five years, they have pursued a number of theories to explain the poisoning, including that it was accidental or the work of a disgruntled coworker.
Last month, authorities arrested Joann Curley, 33, and charged her with first-degree murder in her husband's death. In a 36-page affidavit, investigators paint a portrait of Joann Curley as a cunning and heartless killer who poisoned her husband over a period of months. She allegedly delivered the last and largest dose as her husband was already dying in the hospital. Her motive, prosecutors contend, was $300,000 in life insurance from Curley's death and sole control of a more than $1 million settlement in the traffic death of her first husband.
"We steadfastly maintain her innocence," said Frank Nocito, Joann Curley's attorney who filed court documents stating that Joann Curley passed a polygraph examination administered by the state police.
Acknowledging that the case against Curley is largely circumstantial, District Attorney Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. said he believed a conviction would be "difficult, difficult, difficult." The case, it seems, literally hangs by a hair.
The couple seemed very close, friends recalled.
"It's shocking," said Robert Maurer, who lives next door. "They were a happy, married couple. They hung out together. It just doesn't sound like her, not at all."
Joann Curley's first marriage ended tragically in 1988, when her husband was killed in an accident with a tractor-trailer, leaving Joann and their daughter, Angela, then 4, to start life anew.
Joann met Robert Curley in December 1988 and married him 18 months later.
Friends have said the Curleys had hoped to win a sizable settlement from a lawsuit Joann filed over her first husband's death. They said Robert Curley wanted to use the money for a family trip to Hawaii, to start his own electrical-contracting business, and to build a home.
Robert Curley's brother, David, told police that Joann Curley was "adamantly opposed" to Robert's plans.
Robert Curley first showed signs of illness in August 1991, when he suffered severe burning pains in his hands and feet. After four days in the Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, he was diagnosed with Guillian-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder, and released.
Despite his wife's objections, Robert Curley was readmitted to Wilkes-Barre General in early September 1991, and spent 10 days there before being transferred to Hershey Medical Center. From his symptoms, doctors at Hershey suspected thallium poisoning.
On Sept. 25, two days before Robert Curley died, Joann Curley won a settlement of more than $1 million in the wrongful death case of her first husband.
In seeking the source of the lethal dose of thallium in Curley's body, investigators began with a chemical laboratory at Wilkes University, where Robert had worked on a construction project earlier that year. The lab contained five bottles of thallium.
Investigators from the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration inventoried the chemicals at the lab and determined none was missing. OSHA also tested 13 of Robert Curley's coworkers and concluded none suffered from thallium poisoning.
Investigators eventually found that the one-quart cooler Robert took to work each day had traces of thallium in it. In December 1991, police declared the death a homicide.
The investigation bogged down for almost three years.
In August 1994, police exhumed Curley's body for a second autopsy, which was performed by two forensic experts, Michael Baden and Fredrick Reiders. Both have testified in the O.J. Simpson trials and have worked in numerous other high-profile cases.
Specifically, Baden and Reiders had an interest in Robert Curley's shaggy hair.
"Hair is, for many things, a time line," said Reiders, the director of National Medical Services Inc. in Willow Grove and a former Philadelphia assistant medical examiner. "It is a repository of what circulated in the body. If you take an aspirin, what will grow out of your head will be a strand of hair on which a tiny portion will have a little aspirin."
Since hair grows at an approximate rate of one-third to a half-inch per month, Reiders said, scientists can start at the hair's root, and work backward in time.
Using highly sophisticated equipment, the tests pinpointed at least seven separate occasions during the last 11 months of his life that Robert Curley ingested thallium.
The largest dose, police say, was taken while he was in his hospital bed at the Hershey Medical Center.
Police say Joann Curley was the only person with "constant and frequent access to the victim and to the food and drink consumed by the victim."
Olszewski declined to comment on any psychological profile prosecutors may have developed on Joann Curley or even on how she acquired the thallium. But their case suggests that Robert Curley discovered he was being poisoned in the days before he died.
A registered nurse at the Hershey Medical Center told police that Robert Curley grabbed her by the arm the day before he went into the coma and said, "Please help me. My wife is trying to kill me. She is not as she seems."