Morbid Fact Du Jour For February 11, 2016

Today’s Jealous Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

On September 10, 1978, Sandy and Duane Johnson hosted an informal gathering at their home in Omaha, Nebraska. Sandy’s parents, two sisters, brother-in-law and nephew were in attendance.

That night, the nephew, Chad Shelton, became violently ill with vomiting and diarrhea. His parents, Sallie and Bruce Shelton, took him to the emergency room, where his condition continued to deteriorate rapidly; he began hemorrhaging from every orifice of his body and his platelet count was far below normal. His liver was failing, and he was dead less than a day later.

He was only eleven months old.

Duane Johnson, 25, was brought to the hospital while his nephew was being treated. Johnson was also vomiting and had an uncontrollable nosebleed. He too died, aged 25. His two-year-old daughter Sheri was admitted with similar symptoms, but a blood transfusion saved her life.

Sallie and Bruce Shelton and Sallie and Sandy’s youngest sister Susan were also sickened but survived.

Doctors suspected poisoning of some kind but were at a loss to pinpoint the source of the poison. One doctor, looking through medical literature, came across a photograph of a damaged liver that looked exactly like the livers of the two victims. The liver pictured had been that of a German woman poisoned by her husband.

The poison in question was dimethylnitrosamine, a powerful carcinogen used in cancer research and not available to the general public. The Johnson/Shelton family were asked if they knew anybody who worked in a cancer research setting who might have access to DMN and who might want to poison them, but drew a blank. On a hunch, a police officer did a search of Duane Johnson’s name in the records and learned that in 1975, there had been a confrontation and shooting incident outside the Johnsons’ home. An ex-boyfriend of Sandy’s, Steven Roy Harper, had been angry over Sandy’s jilting him and marrying Duane, and had reacted badly. He served a year in prison and upon his release got a job at the Epley Institute, a cancer-research lab in Omaha.

Harper was an odd character. He’d been burned badly in a house fire as a child and was very sensitive about his resulting scarring. In high school he was known as a shy, quiet loner who made good grades and hoped to become a veterinarian. He must have been beyond thrilled when pretty, popular Sandy Betten became his girlfriend, and was heartbroken and angry when she left him for somebody else.

Harper had access to DMN at his workplace, and a veterinarian there remembered treating Harper’s dog and cat for unexplained bleeding. Both animals had died. Their symptoms were consistent with having been poisoned with DMN.

The case against Steven Harper was beginning to add up but there was one major problem: DMN breaks down quickly once ingested and excreted, leaving behind no trace. The supposition was that lemonade served at the Johnsons’ house had been doctored with DMN, as only those people who’d drunk it had been sickened; Sandy’s parents drank coffee and Sandy herself had drunk something else. But the lemonade was all gone and the pitcher had been washed and put away.

A scientist in California agreed to try a test that had never been done before on human tissue. DMN was used to induce cancer in lab animals because it acted on DNA in their tissues. A selection of ten different liver and kidney tissue samples was sent to him for DNA analysis; unbeknownst to him, one of those samples was from Duane Johnson’s organs. He performed the test and reported that Johnson’s tissue samples and none of the others showed a characteristic pattern of DNA changes consistent with DMN toxicity.

Harper was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder and three of attempted murder. It’s believed he had taken the DMN from a locked refrigerator at the Epley Institute, tried it out on his own pets, and once he saw that it would be fatal, slipped into the Johnsons’ house a few days before the party and added the chemical to a pitcher of lemonade he found in their fridge.

Harper was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair, but he never had to face his punishment: he committed suicide in his cell.

Sheri Johnson survived her brush with death, but sustained permanent liver damage as a result. Bruce and Sallie Shelton also recovered, but Bruce Shelton was so distraught over his son’s death and his own fears that he would develop cancer that he descended into alcoholism and died homeless at the age of 38. Sallie remarried but refused to have any more children, fearing that she would die of cancer and leave them motherless.

The final irony is that Sandy Johnson, Harper’s presumed intended target, did not become ill. Harper was clearly obsessed with her, but apparently either didn’t know or had forgotten that she didn’t like lemonade.

Here are the victims –

Duane Johnson:

Chad Shelton:

And here’s the killer, Steven Roy Harper:

Culled From: Forensic Files
Submitted by: Aimee

Jealousy is maybe the ugliest of human emotions. – Aimee

You can watch the Forensic Files episode here.












Garretdom: Dreadful Intoxication Edition!

If I was this man’s wife, I would be sooooooooo pissed, for a number of reasons. You too?

December 9, 1887

A Dreadful Result of Intoxication.

NEW YORK, Dec. 9.–The wife of James Colbourne, a painter, living at 119 Sullivan street, gave birth to a child last night and at midnight Colbourne came in drunk. He stumbled about, and finally fell across the bed where the child lay. The child was crushed so that it died, and the father was arrested and to-day was held for examination.

From the Collection of The Comtesse DeSpair
The 1887 Morbid Scrapbook


  1. I believe that a comment at the end of the Forensic Files episode states that sadly Sallie Shelton has died of cancer, presumably from long-term effects of the poison.

    1. I’ve seen that episode – or the equivalent from some similar show. Yes, Mrs Shelton did die of liver cancer from exposure. So the upshot is, Harper won. While he did not kill his intended target, he did inflict tremendous anguish and Survivor’s Guilt on her, and he successfully escaped any punishment for his evil. Once dead, since he obviously felt justified in what he did, thus he would have sent himself to Heaven, assuming he was unlucky enough to experience any afterlife at all…

  2. Irony. I saw the Forensic Files episode with my girlfriend. She didn’t think much of it, but my jaw dropped, my name is Duane and my girlfriend’s name is Sandy! And in Nebraska. The most famous person ever to be executed in Nebraska was Charlie Starkweather, executed on my birthday!

  3. I worked with Sallie Shelton at Mutual if Omaha and I always wondered why she never wanted to talk about kids. Now I know why. And I never knew til u saw this forensic files about 10 years ago.
    My jaw dropped when I heard her name and saw the picture of her and Bruce.

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