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Crime News Accident, Suicide, or Murder

‘I Squeezed It Hard’: Wife Emptied Eye Drops Bottle Into Husband’s Drink To Poison Him

Did rich entrepreneur Steve Clayton die of natural causes at his South Carolina estate? Detectives uncovered the shocking answer.

By Joe Dziemianowicz

The typical serenity of Lake Wylie, South Carolina was suddenly shattered by a 911 report to the York County Police Department on July 21, 2018. 

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Responding to the report, emergency personnel found 64-year-old Stephen “Steve” Clayton lying unresponsive at the foot of a staircase in his lakeside estate. 

“EMS was not able to revive him,” Sgt. Lanelle Day, of the York County Sheriff’s Office, told “Accident, Suicide or Murder,” airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen

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Investigators learned that the victim’s wife, Lana Sue Clayton, had been mowing the lawn. When she came inside, she found him at the foot of the stairs, so she ran for help and flagged down a motorcyclist to call 911.

Lana told sheriffs that Steve had been ill and bedridden for two days, and claimed that he didn’t want to see a doctor. She also said she was unable to turn Steve onto his back to do CPR when she found him because he was too heavy.

Steve’s entrepreneurial success in the sports rehab field had enabled him to retire comfortably, but his personal life wasn’t as smooth sailing. In 2013, at age 59, he had been married and divorced six times.

That’s when he met Lana, a nurse from Oklahoma. Friends told producers that Steve was attracted to her “caring spirit.”

They married in 2015 and settled into their home in Lake Wylie. Three years later, Steve was dead.

Steve Clayton.

A preliminary exam by the coroner revealed no signs of bruises or abrasions, and it was clear from the examiner’s assessment that the fall hadn't caused the death, according to investigators. Discoloration of his body suggested that he’d had a heart attack. 

Steve’s body was to be released to the funeral home, and Lana didn’t want an autopsy to be performed, according to Lieutenant Pete Branham, of the York County Sheriff’s Office.

"If someone does have sick family members, it's not an illogical request,” he noted.

However, an investigator who worked the case who knew the family made unsettling observations. Signs showed that Steve had been in his bed so long there was a puddle of urine underneath it. 

The detective was also baffled by the absence of Steve’s phone, which was never recovered. 

As Steve’s body was taken to a local funeral home to be cremated, Lana’s family members arrived to support her. She claimed she didn’t want an autopsy done because it could reveal embarrassing secrets about Steve smoking marijuana.

Lana Clayton.

Lana also claimed that Steve didn’t have a will. When family members expressed doubts about that, she turned hostile, according to Kevin Brackett, a solicitor with the 18th Judicial Court of South Carolina.

Between the absence of a will and Lana’s odd behavior, Steve’s family members reached out to have an autopsy done, according to Dr. Sabrina Gast, York County Coroner.

This autopsy revealed that Steve had several health issues that may have contributed to a natural death — an enlarged heart, gallbladder disease, and congested lungs. 

But in mid-August, the toxicology report came back and immediately raised a red flag. There was a significant presence of tetrahydrozoline, a chemical found in eye drops.

Steve’s body had 30 times what would be normal had he been using eye drops therapeutically.  If ingested, tetrahydrozoline can cause cardiovascular and respiratory issues — and "it can cause death,” said Gast.

How did such a large dose of the drug get into Steve’s system?

“The manner of death could have easily been accidental suicide or homicide,” said Dr. Demi Garven, director of forensic services at the Forensic Science Network.

Investigators began to suspect foul play and focused on Lana, whose failures to try to perform CPR on Steve and call 911 herself were suspicious. 

As they dug deeper into her background, they found that in 2016 she had discharged a crossbow arrow that struck Steve in the head. At the time, the couple told police it was an accident.

Lana agreed to meet to discuss her husband’s death with Gast on August 29. The interview began with questions about Steve’s condition in the days before his death.

Lana didn’t seem surprised about medical findings from the autopsy. When the toxicological report came up, Lana knew what tetrahydrozoline was. Even though she was a nurse, her admission surprised investigators.

Lana claimed that Steve added eyedrops to his coffee on a regular basis — Garven called that explanation “implausible. This drug should not be in the post-mortem blood.”

They also asked Lana to go back over what she did when she found Steve’s lifeless body. Her story proved inconsistent about her doing CPR and calling 911.

They again asked Lana about the eye drops and why, as a nurse, she’d let him lace his coffee with a potentially dangerous substance. 

She said she didn’t think eye drops could “be anything serious.” When detectives pushed Lana, she became defensive and asked for a lawyer.

The interview ended, and investigators informed Lana that they’d secured a warrant to search her home and cell phone.

As detectives searched the Clayton home, Lana voluntarily told them that Steve was controlling, manipulative, and prone to anger. She also said, “I did put Visine in his water.”

Ultimately, she agreed to talk more, claiming Steve was violent and that he had hit her. She also claimed that she fired the crossbow to protect herself.

A coworker, she alleged, told her that she could get even with someone by putting Visine in the drink and that it would simply cause diarrhea. She admitted that she emptied a container of the eye drops into Steve’s water.

“I squeezed it hard,” she said. “I was so angry. I just wanted him to have diarrhea to just be miserable.”

Lana never confessed that she planned to kill Steve or do him harm. Detectives confronted the question of whether the case was involuntary manslaughter or murder. They had confirm her statements by talking with friends and relatives. No one reported that Steve was violent or abusive. 

Based on all the evidence, investigators determined that Steve’s death was a murder. Detectives theorized that the marriage had run its course and Lana wanted to keep the luxurious lifestyle. Without a will or prenup she would inherit Steve’s fortune.

Lana’s trial began on January 17, 2020. She pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and tampering with a food or a drug causing death. 

The judge admonished her about what she’d done to her husband: “You let him suffer for three days.”

She was sentenced to 25 years in prison without parole. 

To learn more about the case, watch  “Accident, Suicide or Murder,” airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen or stream episodes here.