Fatal antifreeze poisoning report in Auburn being investigated

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Cynthia Smith claimed she was attacked while on a walk on Auburn’s Edgewood Road by a man who forced antifreeze down her throat. Seven days later, the 36-year-old Citrus Heights woman died after sinking into a coma at Mercy San Juan Medical Center. Now, both Placer County Sheriff’s Office investigators and grieving family members are looking for answers in a bizarre set of circumstances that apparently started with a decision to take a Friday evening walk in the dark down a quiet road on the outskirts of the city. Sgt. Fred Guitron said it wasn’t unusual for Smith to go out on walks in the dark but what may have occurred the night of Dec. 3 is still couched in uncertainty. Smith’s death is being treated as suspicious but toxicology and autopsy reports from the county’s pathologist will give the Sheriff’s Office a better idea of what she died of. Those tests, however, won’t be completed until at least mid-January, Guitron said. “We’re investigating it as a suspicious death but we have minimal information,” Guitron said. The poisoning Smith spoke of would have occurred sometime between 6:30 p.m. and 6:40 p.m. Dec. 3, Guitron said. Smith told sheriff’s deputies later that Friday night of taking a walk alone outside while visiting a female cousin’s Edgewood Road apartment and being accosted by a white male with a thin build, Guitron said. The man pushed her down and forced her to drink antifreeze from a bottle, Smith told deputies. Smith said she walked back from the attack site – near the Union Pacific railroad overpass crossing Edgewood Road – and eventually got a return ride to her Sacramento County home from her female Citrus Heights roommate. Before leaving Auburn, Smith was seen by medical personnel at the apartment but signed a release stating that she had declined to be taken to hospital by ambulance, Guitron said. Leslie Smith, Cynthia’s father, said that his daughter “doesn’t like drama” and had to be talked into reporting the incident to authorities and seeking medical help. She declined ambulance help because she was out of work and didn’t want to pay for the short ride to the hospital, he said. Staff at the Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital performed a blood draw, Leslie Smith said. Cynthia appeared to be OK during the Saturday and Sunday after the attack but complained about not feeling well on Monday. On Tuesday, Cynthia’s roommate found her extremely sick and called 9-1-1 to have an ambulance take her to hospital, he said. Cynthia lapsed into a coma and was officially declared dead on Friday, her father said. The Sheriff’s Office is dealing with several scenarios – the possibilities ranging from a potential poisoning to a concocted story to perhaps even a suicide attempt. “It’s not implausible (Smith’s statement to investigators) but it’s pretty odd,” Guitron said. Leslie Smith said his daughter, a graduate of the University of California, Davis, had been out of work since last December but not despondent enough to take her own life. Cynthia’s last job was as a cook at the Jesuit Community Center in Sacramento County. She had also worked nine years in the back country at Yosemite National Park as a cook and spent two years after high school with the California Conservation Corps on the North Coast. Smith and his wife, Nancy, said their daughter had no enemies that they knew of. What the family is left with are more questions now than answers. “We spent a lot of hours at the ICU hoping things would turn around but they never did,” Leslie Smith said. Antifreeze poisoning symptoms include rapid breathing, bloody urine, blurred vision, blindness, change in the body’s internal acid-base balance, leg cramps, headache and slurred speech. Eventually the poisoning victim slips into a coma because of the system’s change in acid balance and kidney failure leads to death. Death can occur within a time period of as little as a day. For those who recover, blindness and brain damage may be permanent. Antifreeze poisoning victims may die after ingesting as little as two ounces. The ultimate outcome depends on how much antifreeze is swallowed and how long afterward appropriate care was given, the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission states. Murder by antifreeze wouldn’t be unprecedented. Georgia’s Lynn Turner was convicted of using antifreeze to poison her husband in 1995 and then her boyfriend six years later. Both died from ingesting ethylene glycol. A coroner found ethylene glycol crystals in the kidneys of both victims after both initially were believed to have died of an irregular heartbeat. The Sheriff’s Office is asking anyone seeing anything suspicious in the Edgewood Road area during and after the time frame of the reported attack to contact (530) 889-7849 and leave a message with information. That could include a suspicious vehicle driving away rapidly around 6:30 p.m. or after on Dec. 3 or hearing screams or the sound of a struggle in that area, Guitron said. The incident as reported is not being considered a random act but the investigation could move forward as a homicide, depending on forensic tests and other information the Sheriff’s Office is gathering, Guitron said. The Sheriff’s Office has collected some evidence but Guitron declined to disclose what it is because of the ongoing investigation. Guitron said that there is nothing to indicate Cynthia Smith’s death has anything to do with the recent deaths of six men over the past two years in the nearby Wise Canal. ------------------------------------ Fast facts: A lethal poison - Two ounces of antifreeze can kill a dog - As little as one teaspoon of antifreeze can kill a cat - Two tablespoons can be hazardous to children - When ingested, antifreeze ingredients convert to oxalic acid, which damages the kidneys. Kidney failure and death can result - According to the American Association of Poison Control, about 3,400 poisonings a year involve antifreeze. - About 20 percent of antifreeze poisonings involve children under 6 Source: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration environmental compliance office - Gus Thomson