Alturas, Florida, October 1988 — Peggy Carr and her daughter, Cissy, were at work at a local restaurant when Peggy began feeling sick. She said she had strange pains in her chest, her hands felt numb, and her legs hurt terribly. She told Cissy she was afraid she was having a heart attack.
She went home to rest, but the pain only got worse. Finally, it was unbearable. She was taken to Bartow Memorial Hospital, where she told doctors she felt like she was on fire.
The ER physicians couldn’t seem to find a cause for her pain. One doctor, unsurprisingly, told Peggy her symptoms were psychosomatic.
Nonetheless, they kept her in the hospital for observation for three days. Her condition seemed to improve, so she was sent home.
But now, her son, Duane, and step-son, Travis, had also started to complain about tingling fingers, upset stomachs, and burning sensations throughout their bodies. Days later, Peggy’s symptoms returned, and she was rushed to Winter Haven Hospital.
There, they did some routine tests, but found nothing out of the ordinary. However, while she was being examined, one of her doctors noticed something troubling: Peggy’s hair was falling out. That’s when he began to suspect that Peggy had been poisoned. He specifically suspected thallium — a tasteless, odorless chemical that was once widely used as an insecticide and rodent poison. But because of its extreme toxicity — ingesting as little as one gram can kill an adult — by 1972, it was banned by the EPA.
Thallium poisoning is extremely painful. It causes peripheral nerve damage that can feel like numbness, pins and needles, or fire in the extremities. It can also induce severe stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Weakness and confusion are also symptoms of thallium poisoning. Treatment, if it is caught early enough, consists of taking the compound Prussian blue by mouth and/or hemodialysis and hemoperfusion to remove it from the bloodstream.
The doctor had Peggy’s urine tested for thallium. When the results came back a day later, they showed Peggy had 20,000 times the natural amount of thallium in her system. Duane and Travis were tested, and their tests also came back positive — though they didn’t have quite as much in their system as Peggy did. Peggy’s husband, Pye; his daughter Gelena; and grand-daughter Kacey — who also lived in the house — also tested positive for trace amounts of the chemical.
Though they eventually recovered, Duane was hospitalized for two months; Travis, for six months.
Since Peggy had ingested such an enormous amount of the poison and hadn’t been diagnosed until the poison had been in her system for so long, her prognosis was fatal. Getting ever weaker, and in more pain, by the day, she eventually lost her ability to speak, and could only use sign language to communicate. Soon, she slipped into a coma. On March 3, 1989 — four long months after she had been poisoned — her family took her off life support. Peggy, who was only 41, died shortly afterwards.
This was now a homicide investigation. Police of course questioned Pye, since he and Peggy had recently had some marital problems and he had been conveniently out of town when the family fell ill. But once tests revealed that he, too, had been poisoned, as well as his son, Travis, he was taken off the suspect list.
Police tested everything in and around the house, from the well water to the trees in the orchards surrounding the property. They finally found traces of thallium in some empty Coca-Cola bottles in the home. This new evidence pointed to possible product tampering, which put it under the jurisdiction of the FBI. Their labs not only found thallium in the unopened Coke bottles, they also found microscopic tool marks indicating the lids had been carefully taken off and then replaced. Since this was such a time-consuming and meticulous process, they reasoned it couldn’t have been done in the Coca-Cola plant or a grocery store. It had to have been done by someone after they purchased the drinks.
No one in the Carr household could remember buying those Cokes. But as they pointed out, Alturas was such a small, safe community they never locked their doors. Anyone could have come inside and left the drinks.
At first, Pye couldn’t think of anyone who would want to poison Peggy. Then, he remembered all the troubles he and his family had been having with his neighbors.
The Carr family — a large blended family of Peggy and Pye, along with their four children from previous marriages, and one grandchild — had been having issues with their only neighbors, George Trepal and his wife, Diana Carr (no relation). Diana frequently complained about the noise coming from the Carrs’ home: their barking dog, loud music, and anything else that she found annoying. For their part, the Carr family — especially the teenaged boys, Duane and Travis — responded with defiance, turning up the music, setting off fireworks, riding their four-wheelers on George and Diana’s property, and generally making sport of Diana’s short fuse.
Despite Diana’s temper, most of the Carr family found George to be a nice guy. The boys recall that he would wave and smile at them. They considered him a bit of a recluse and a nerd, but harmless.
But apparently, he was just as annoyed with the neighbors as Diana. In March 1988, George complained to the local zoning board about Pye converting his garage into an apartment for his daughters and grand-daughter. Pye was cited for a zoning violation. This forced him to substantially delay construction — and pay out more money — in order to get a variance and proper permits.
Then, in July, Pye received an anonymous letter addressed to “Pie Carr.” It was addressed to him in Bartow, FL — where residents in Alturas officially receive mail. In it was a message typewritten on a Post-It, “YOU AND ALL YOUR SO CALLED FAMILY HAVE TWO WEEKS TO MOVE OUT OF FLORIDA FOREVER OR ELSE YOU ALL DIE. THIS IS NO JOKE.”
Pye shrugged it off as a prank and forgot about it.
Then in October, only two days before Peggy had fallen sick, Diana went to the Carrs’ home in a rage. The family recalls that Diana was “screaming and cussing and yelling,” “ranting and raving” about them playing their music too loud. They said her level of anger was way out of proportion to the situation. When Peggy didn’t submit to Diana’s demands, and instead walked away, they said Diana stormed off, shouting, “You won’t get away with this!” and “This isn’t over!”
Police now had a possible motive. They began digging into Diana and George’s background.
They found out the couple were both extremely intelligent — in fact, they were members of Mensa, a club for people whose IQ’s are among the top 2% in the nation.
Diana, who had majored in chemistry in college, was an orthopedic surgeon who often worked long hours. George described himself as a freelance computer programmer and didn’t appear to have any other kind of job outside the home.
Despite Diana’s many arguments with the Carr family (and her background in chemistry), it was George that drew investigators’ attention. For one, he fit the FBI’s profile of a poisoner: white male, extremely intelligent, with a passive personality who avoided direct conflicts.
When, in their initial investigation, they questioned George, they said he seemed nervous, avoiding eye contact and stuttering. When they asked him why he thought someone might want to poison the Carrs, his answer was chilling: “Someone must have wanted them to move out of the neighborhood.” Out of the more than 50 friends and neighbors the police had questioned, he was the only person to say that. And it was precisely the sentiment expressed by the threatening letter.
He claimed that he usually went with Diana to her workplace, so wasn’t at home and didn’t have access to the Carr’s house. This directly conflicted with the Carr family’s observations that George rarely left his house.
He also told police that he knew nothing about thallium. Further digging into his background would prove that to be a lie.
George Trepal was born in 1949 in New York City, the son of a policeman and an elementary school teacher. Not much is known about his childhood, other than the fact that his intelligence was apparent early on.
He attended Clemson University in South Carolina, where he studied chemistry for two years before graduating in 1972 with a degree in psychology. While he was in college, like most students in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he was well known for enjoying drugs, and lots of them. He also apparently liked sharing them with others, with or without their consent. For example, at one point he became convinced some other students were sneaking into his dorm room when he wasn’t there. So he coated his doorknob with hallucinogens designed to be absorbed into the skin to teach the trespassers a lesson.
Another time, while he was on a road trip with a friend, they would pick up unsuspecting hitchhikers and give them brownies or cookies laced with drugs, just to witness their reactions.
Then in 1975 he was arrested in Charlotte, South Carolina, for running one of the largest methamphetamine labs in the Southeast. He served three years in a federal prison for the crime. Tellingly, he was known to use a particular method of “cooking” meth known as the P2P method, which uses thallium in the process.
Since being released from prison, George appeared to be on the straight and narrow. He and Diana met at a Mensa meeting. They seemed to have a strong marriage — both of them were very intelligent, and George was passive enough to allow Diana to pursue her career ambitions without much conflict.
The two also shared a love of true crime and mysteries. George studied police manuals and believed himself to be an expert on crime-scene procedures. One of their few social outlets was organizing and staging Mensa’s “Murder Mystery Weekends,” where they would stage elaborate “homicides,” then lead the guests through the clues to solve them.
In April 1989, a little over a month after Peggy’s death, the couple hosted a Mensa Murder Mystery Weekend with some unsettling paralells to her poisoning.
In the booklet George wrote for the participants was this:
“When a death threat appears on the doorstep, prudent people throw out all their food and watch what they eat. Hardly anyone dies from magic. Most items on the doorstep are just a neighbor’s way of saying, ‘I don’t like you. Move or else.’”
This is where Det. Susan Goreck of the Polk County Sheriff’s Department, under the name Sherry Guin, first met George. The Polk County Sheriff’s Department had a strong suspicion that George was the poisoner, but didn’t have any actual evidence. They decided to use Goreck, a veteran undercover officer, to hopefully gain some evidence.
“Sherry” was able to befriend the couple easily. Since Diana worked so much, it wasn’t hard for her to spend time with George alone. While he never admitted to anything, Susan found several little clues that pointed towards George’s guilt. During one visit to his home, she noticed an Agatha Christie novel lying on a table: The Pale Horse. Spoiler alert: Susan later learned that the novel’s murderer used thallium to poison his victims. At one point, George suggested that Sherry poison her husband to get what she wanted in the divorce settlement. She also found out that George made homemade wine, and he owned a tool that could re-cap bottles.
Police expected the undercover operation to last a few months. But George Trepal was too smart of a man to confess to murder. The operation — titled Pale Horse, after the Agatha Christie novel — stretched out over two years.
They caught a break when George and Diana moved to Sebring, Florida, so that Diana could set up a new practice. Susan immediately rented their old house before they could even move all of their things out. As soon as she had the keys, crime-scene technicians searched the house. Inside the garage, they found chemicals — lots and lots of chemicals — none of which were thallium. But they also found some empty bottles, one of which had a white powdery residue at the bottom. The bottle was tested, and the residue was identified as thallium — the same kind used to poison Peggy Carr and her family.
Now that they had physical evidence tying George to the crime, they went to Sebring to arrest him. At the door, Diana was livid and attempted to block police from entering their home. Once an officer had physically restrained her, they entered the house to find George standing at the top of the stairs in nothing but a pair of bikini underwear. When they told him he was under arrest, his only response was, “Can I put some clothes on?”
A search of the house uncovered several poison and chemistry books, including a pamphlet George had written called Chemistry for the Complete Idiot, Practical Guide to all Chemistry. They also found a three-ring binder with the title, “General Poison Guide.” It contained photocopied pages from a book titled Poison Detection in Human Organs and a chapter from another book titled “Death by Poison Synopsis.” These copied pages included discussions on thallium, covered in George’s fingerprints.
In January 1991, George was charged with 15 criminal counts, including first-degree murder, attempted murder, poisoning food or water, and product tampering.
His defense was based on the fact that the case against him was entirely circumstantial, and that the only piece of evidence against him was the bottle with thallium residue was found in his unlocked garage. Anyone could have put that bottle there, the defense argued. Their central argument was that, according to the prosecution’s case, there was just as much reason to suspect Diana Carr of the murders.
But the overwhelming weight of the circumstantial evidence pointed squarely at George Trepal. After four weeks of testimony, the jury only deliberated six hours before returning guilty verdicts against him on all counts. He was sentenced to death.
Despite being one of his staunchest defenders, Diana divorced George in 1996.
Sherry Goreck, with the help of Jeffrey Good, a reporter with the St. Petersburg Times, wrote a book about the case titled Poison Mind.
Though he has filed numerous appeals — including an attempt to exclude the thallium bottle evidence, on the basis that the FBI’s laboratory had been found to have conducted sloppy work — he remains on death row in Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida.
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