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What Unusual Method Did A Respected Medical Researcher Use To Kill His ‘Rising Star’ Doctor Wife?
Dr. Autumn Klein and her researcher husband, Robert Ferrante, appeared to have an idyllic marriage, but her sudden death in 2013 revealed a deeply fractured relationship.
From the outside, Autumn Klein and Robert Ferrante appeared to have an idyllic marriage.
Klein, 41, was a brilliant, young doctor specializing in women’s neurology.
“Autumn was not just a rising star, she was a shooting star,” colleague Dr. Karen Rouse said in an episode of “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” airing Thursday on Oxygen at 8/7c. “She was nationally recognized as a leader in her field at a very young age.”
Her husband Robert Ferrante—20 years her senior—worked as a University of Pittsburgh medical researcher and professor, specializing in ALS and Huntington’s disease.
The couple shared a young daughter and were hoping to expand their family with a second child. But those dreams were shattered when Klein suffered a mysterious medical episode on the evening of April 17, 2013, shortly after returning home from work.
Ferrante quickly called 911, telling the dispatcher, “I think my wife is having a stroke.”
Klein, a healthy and active woman, was rushed to the hospital with a perplexing set of symptoms.
“She had this blank stare in her eyes, barely a pulse,” Alan Jennings, a former reporter with WPXI, told "Dateline."
Klein was struggling to breathe and was placed on a ventilator, as Ferrante gave the doctors details on her medical background. He told them she had been taking fertility treatments and had been experiencing headaches and fainting spells before she suffered what he believed was a stroke.
But medical tests didn’t support that diagnosis and the medical staff was even more alarmed after discovering Klein’s blood was a shockingly bright red color.
“To them, this was out of this world,” Jennings said.
Doctors ordered a toxicology screening, but Klein’s health continued to deteriorate. She lost brain function as her family desperately sought answers as to what was ailing her.
Ferrante regularly updated Klein’s cousin, Sharon King, on her condition and appeared to be a concerned and grieving spouse.
“He did say to me, ‘I am going to go spend the last night with the love of my life,’ and at the time I thought, ‘It’s not over yet.’” King recalled.
Klein died after three agonizing days in the hospital.
Klein’s mother, Lois Klein, wanted answers and pushed for an autopsy, but she was surprised when Ferrante said he didn’t want one. His defense attorneys would later argue it had been because he wanted to honor his wife’s wishes to become an organ donor after her death.
“I said, ‘I’m her mother and I want an autopsy,’” Lois told Dateline. “I said, ‘I don’t believe you don’t want to know what happened to her’ and his response was that people do that, they do autopsies and then the people don’t want to know the results of it.”
Despite Ferrante’s opposition, an autopsy was performed to determine how this “sudden unexplained death” had occurred.
Initially, Dr. Todd Luckasevic, an associate medical examiner for Allegheny County found no obvious signs of what may have caused her death, but the toxicology results from her blood work soon revealed the rising doctor had met a sinister end.
Klein had died from a lethal amount of cyanide—the same poison used in Nazi death camps and the Jonestown massacre, according to “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.”
“I’ve done approximately 3,500 cases in my career and this is my first case of cyanide poisoning,” Luckasevic said.
The discovery explained some of Klein’s unusual symptoms like the bright red blood and her struggle to breathe. According to Luckasevic, cyanide can starve the body of oxygen, which then gets trapped in the blood instead, changing its color to a vibrant red.
Once the cause of death was determined, Klein’s case was handed over to investigators with the Pittsburgh Police.
While Ferrante suggested his wife may have ingested the deadly poison on her own, investigators soon ruled out suicide and focused instead on Ferrante as the prime suspect.
Prosecutors said the couple’s seemingly happy marriage was on the rocks and Ferrante had been “obsessed” and “jealous,” according to Jennings, who covered the case for WPXI. They pointed to emails between the couple where Klein had described how alone she felt in their fertility struggles.
“I realize now I’ve been alone in this entire emotional journey,” she wrote in one message. “I can’t even speak to you without getting angry.”
Prosecutors said Ferrante had also discovered that Klein was texting and emailing a male colleague she had spent time with at a conference. While King denied Klein was having any type of relationship with the man, prosecutors believed it was enough to trigger intense jealously in Ferrante.
“The motivation, just jealously,” Jennings said. “If he couldn’t have her no one was going to have her.”
Prosecutors believed Ferrante decided to slip his wife the poison—which he had requested from his lab at work—while pretending he was giving his wife creatine, a supplement he suggested to help in her fertility battle.
The day she fell ill, Klein had texted her husband that she was ovulating tomorrow. He texted back, “Perfect timing. Creatine” with a smiley face symbol. Prosecutors believe he mixed the creatine laced with cyanide into a drink that he gave her shortly after she got home from work.
Pittsburgh Police Det. Jim McGee said in the months before Klein’s death, investigators found evidence that Ferrante had been Googling cyanide and had placed an order—which he requested be urgently sent to him overnight—for the toxin at his lab just two days before Klein fell ill.
His fingerprints were found on the container and 8.3 grams, or about a teaspoon, were missing from the container.
However, his attorney Bill Difenderfer denied his client played any role in Klein’s death.
“There is not evidence that my client had anything to do with her death, let alone her death caused by cyanide,” he told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.”
Difenderfer said he doesn’t believe Klein died from cyanide poisoning and questioned the accuracy of the lab’s results. He also argued that Ferrante had ordered the cyanide at his lab for upcoming research—not for any sinister means.
“That’s like me buying a shotgun, telling everybody ‘Hey I just bought a shotgun’ and two hours later my wife is deceased from a shotgun shell,” he said. “He would be the dumbest guy in the universe.”
A jury didn’t buy that explanation and ultimately convicted Ferrante of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
While Klein's family finally got the answers they sought about what caused her death, they told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” they still struggle with why she was killed.
“A lot of my life feels like it doesn’t make sense without her,” King said through tears. “You know, she was there for everything.”
Watch "Dateline: Secrets Uncovered" on Oxygen, Thursdays at 8/7c.