George Trepal was sentenced to death by the State of Florida for the murder of Peggy Carr. According to court documents George Trepal did not like his neighbors and proceeded to poison the entire family killing Peggy Carr. George Trepal would be arrested, convicted and sentenced to death
George Trepal 2021 Information
|TREPAL, GEORGE J
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Trepal and his wife, Dr. Diana Carr, lived in Alturas, Florida, on property adjoining the home of victim Peggy Carr and her husband Parearlyn “Pye” Carr.2 The two homes—Pye Carr’s and Trepal’s—were located amid orange groves and were very isolated. The next nearest neighbors were about a quarter-mile away.
In June 1988, Pye Carr received an anonymous letter stating, “You and all your so-called family have two weeks to move out of Florida forever or else you will all die. This is no joke.” The letter was postmarked in nearby Bartow, Florida. Even though Pye’s home was in Alturas, the letter correctly listed Pye’s mailing address as being in Bartow, Florida. Pye’s and Trepal’s homes, both in Alturas, had Bartow mailing addresses because they got their mail on the Bartow post office route. Trepal would know this fact.
On October 23, 1988, Peggy Carr began to show symptoms of an unknown illness, including nausea, pain in her chest and extremities, and difficulty breathing. She was admitted to Bartow Memorial Hospital the next day and stayed for three days. Back at home, Peggy’s symptoms worsened, and the children in the Carr home, Travis and Duane, began to show similar symptoms. On October 30, 1988, Peggy, Travis, and Duane were admitted to Winter Haven Hospital.3
Treating neurologist Dr. Richard Hostler suspected thallium poisoning.4 Within 24 hours, lab tests confirmed the presence of thallium in Peggy’s tissues.
Despite treatment, Peggy Carr’s condition deteriorated, and within a week she lapsed into a coma from which she never awoke. She died on March 3, 1989.
Duane remained hospitalized for two months and Travis for six months, but both eventually recovered. Tests revealed the presence of thallium not only in Travis and Duane, but also in Pye, his daughter Gelena, and his granddaughter Kasey, who also lived with Pye and Peggy.5
C. The Investigation
Following the thallium poisoning diagnosis, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and other governmental agencies searched for the source of the Carrs’ exposure. Representatives of the Polk County Health Department, the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (“HRS”), and the EPA searched the Carrs’ home.6
At the Carrs’ home, investigators recovered an 8–pack of 16–ounce glass Coca–Cola bottles from the kitchen. Three bottles were full and four were empty.7 The HRS and FBI Laboratories tested and found thallium in the three full bottles and thallium residue in the four empty bottles. The bottle caps from the three full bottles showed evidence of having been removed by a small tool and then placed back onto the bottles with a press or capping device. The investigation became a criminal one.
In December 1988, investigators interviewed Trepal. When asked why anyone would want to poison the Carrs, Trepal said that perhaps someone wanted them to move out of their home. Investigators found Trepal’s response eerily similar to the threatening letter. Police later learned Trepal had a college degree in chemistry and in the 1970s was the chemist of a methamphetamine laboratory, for which he served two and a half years in federal prison. Local police began an undercover investigation of Trepal that lasted more than a year.
On December 12, 1989, investigators searched Trepal’s home. They found a small brown bottle in the drawer of a workbench in his garage. The bottle contained a white powder that was tested and found to contain thallium.
Trepal was arrested. On April 5, 1990, Trepal was indicted on one count of first-degree murder, six counts of attempted first-degree murder, seven counts of poisoning food or water, and one count of tampering with a consumer product.
D. Trial Evidence
Trepal’s trial ran from January 7 to February 7, 1991. In the guilt phase, the State called more than 70 witnesses. Trepal’s three attorneys—J. Wofford Stidham, Jonathan Stidham, and Dabney Conner—called no witnesses, relying on the evidence elicited during cross-examination.
Below we set forth in more detail the trial evidence by which the State connected Trepal to the Carr poisonings, divided into these topics: (1) Trepal’s suspicious police interview and the ensuing undercover investigation of Trepal, including the “Mensa murder weekend” event Trepal hosted; (2) the searches of Trepal’s homes, in which police discovered Trepal’s chemistry equipment, poison journal, poisonous chemicals, and the bottle of thallium; (3) Trepal’s chemistry and criminal background; (4) Trepal’s history of animosity toward the Carrs; (5) Florida HRS’s testing of the empty Coca–Cola bottles; (6) expert Havekost’s testing at the FBI Lab; (7) Martz’s testimony; and (8) testing by the Coca–Cola corporate laboratory.
1. Trepal’s Suspicious Interview and Ensuing Undercover Investigation
Detective Ernest Mincey of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office led the investigation and the interview of Trepal that put him on the police’s radar. In his interview, which took place on December 22, 1988, Trepal looked very nervous. Trepal told Detective Mincey and FBI Agent Brad Brekke that he was a self-employed computer programmer and technical writer and he knew nothing of thallium.
When asked why someone might want to poison the Carr family, Trepal said perhaps someone wanted them to move out of their house, which, Trepal noted, the Carrs had done. Mincey found this response suspicious because it was different from those given by the more than 50 people Mincey had already interviewed and, as noted earlier, it was “almost identical” to the threatening letter.
In April 1989, an article in the local newspaper advertised upcoming events for the Mensa organization, of which Trepal and his wife were members. The article discussed an upcoming “Mensa murder weekend” role-playing event that Trepal and his wife were hosting. Susan Goreck, a Special Agent with the Polk County Sheriff’s Department, began an undercover investigation of Trepal by attending the event under the assumed name “Sherry Guin.”
The Mensa murder weekend was held at a local hotel. There were four “murders” acted out during the weekend, which the participants, while acting out their roles, tried to solve. The story concerned voodoo. The murders were very sophisticated, and each of the four was preceded by the victim receiving a threatening note. Trepal’s wife wrote the murder scenarios with Trepal’s help. In particular, Trepal himself wrote a booklet given to participants during the weekend that discussed, among other things, poisoning and threats by neighbors. It stated:
Few voodooists believe they can be killed by psychic means, but no one doubts that he can be poisoned. 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.”
During the weekend, Trepal told Goreck that he and his wife were planning to move and that Trepal might be selling his Alturas home. Goreck told Trepal she would like to look at Trepal’s home if it were for sale.
A few days after the Mensa murder weekend, Agent Goreck, as Sherry Guin, went to Trepal’s home, ostensibly about buying it. Goreck visited Trepal several more times in May and June 1989. Goreck became friends with Trepal and his wife and learned, among other things, that Trepal was very interested in botany and knew about poisonous plants.8
In November 1989, Trepal and his wife moved to Sebring, Florida. From December 1989 to January 1990, Goreck rented Trepal’s home in Alturas.
2. Searches of Trepal’s Homes and Discovery of Thallium Bottle
While Goreck was renting Trepal’s house in Alturas, she and other law enforcement officers searched it. FBI Agent Brekke found a brown bottle inside the drawer of a workbench in Trepal’s detached garage. Agent Brekke uncapped the bottle and saw residue inside it. Goreck sent the bottle to the FBI Lab for analysis. The FBI Lab informed Goreck that the bottle contained thallium I nitrate.9
Police also searched Trepal’s new home in Sebring, Florida. Police found chemistry books, including: (1) The Merck Index of Chemicals and Drugs; (2) the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, which contained chemical information on thallium; and (3) the Fire Protection Guide on Hazardous Materials, which contained a section on thallium compounds. Police also seized from Trepal’s home: (1) a pamphlet written by Trepal called “Chemistry for the Complete Idiot, Practical Guide to all Chemistry” with pictures and index; (2) “many, many” chemicals, plus chemistry-related glassware and equipment; and (3) a homemade journal described as “a general poison guide.”
Trepal’s journal included photocopied pages from a book entitled, Poison Detection in Human Organs. One of the photocopied pages included a discussion of thallium. The journal was tested for fingerprints and was found to have Trepal’s prints on it. Trepal’s wife’s prints were not found on the journal.
Trepal’s journal also contained photocopied pages from another book with a section entitled, “Death by Poison Synopsis.” One page from the journal, which was read to the jury, stated that “Determining whether a person died as a result of natural illness or as a result of poisoning is one of the most difficult types of investigation both for the officer and for the medical expert.” The page described the process by which one tries to determine if someone has been poisoned. The next page in the journal stated, among other things, “The presence of any one poison is so difficult to ascertain that it may be undetected unless the [medical] examiner has some idea as to the type of poison for which he is looking.”
Some of the photocopies in the journal were made from a library book at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina. Trepal attended Central Piedmont Community College from 1974–1975.
3. Trepal’s Chemistry and Criminal Background
Several witnesses testified about Trepal’s chemistry experience, which went back well over a decade, and the collection of chemistry equipment Trepal kept in his Alturas garage and Sebring home.
First, DEA Agent Richard Broughton testified that, in the mid–1970s, Trepal “was the chemist and mastermind” of a group that produced methamphetamine. David Warren, Trepal’s partner in the methamphetamine production scheme, also testified to Trepal’s role as chemist for the group.
Trepal’s methamphetamine production experience was particularly relevant because, as Agent Broughton testified, thallium nitrate can be used in the process. Specifically, thallium III nitrate can be used to produce phenyl-II-propanone, called “P2P,” which “is an immediate precursor used in the manufacture of both methamphetamine and amphetamine.” When the P2P is produced, a sediment drops out of solution, and that sediment is thallium I nitrate. The P2P “is then used to manufacture amphetamine, and the Thallium I Nitrate is disposed of.”10
Second, a witness confirmed that Trepal kept chemicals and other chemistry equipment in the garage of his Alturas home. Calvin Adams, a builder who did some work for Trepal and his wife as they were moving into their Alturas home in 1982 and who helped them with the move, noticed that one of the items he helped move into Trepal’s garage “was a plastic milk carton filled with chemical bottles.” There were at least four or five boxes of chemicals and chemical bottles and other chemistry items. Some of the chemicals were in brown bottles like the bottle police found in Trepal’s garage.
Adams asked Trepal what he was doing with the chemistry items, and Trepal replied, “I’m a chemist. I intend to set up a laboratory in the garage.” Trepal also had an antique-type bottle capper, which is used to affix metal caps onto glass bottles. Trepal told Adams he sometimes made wine for himself and capped the wine bottles.
Third, Trepal’s chemistry collection at the time of his arrest included many exotic and dangerous chemicals. Scott Ryland, an analytical chemist for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, analyzed various chemicals that were seized from Trepal’s homes in Alturas and Sebring. These chemicals included sodium cyanide, barium chloride, cobalt nitrate, potassium ferricyanide, chromium trioxide, platinum oxide, lead chloride, and uranium oxide, all of which are toxic.
4. Trepal’s Animosity Toward the Carrs
Numerous witnesses recounted Trepal’s years of threats, arguments, and animosity toward the Carrs. For example, Alan Adams, who did lawn care for Trepal in 1982 and 1983, saw Trepal interact with the children who lived at the Carrs’ property. Trepal “always got highly upset and usually yelled obscenities at them.” Trepal “made threats” toward the Carr children on “several occasions.” One time Trepal said, “I will get them.” Another time, Trepal “got highly upset when they rode some motorcycles through his yard and said, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ ”
Margaret Smith, who was Pye’s first wife and the mother of Tammy and Travis, lived next door to Trepal for four years. Trepal did not like the Carrs’ dogs. Several times Smith saw Trepal “throwing sticks or stomping his foot at them trying to get them out of his yard.”
John Schaffer bought the Carrs’ home after Peggy’s death and became Trepal’s new neighbor. Trepal told Schaffer that Pye had a drinking problem and irritated Trepal by coming over to Trepal’s house while drunk and banging on Trepal’s door. Trepal told Schaffer that there was a “big social difference” between the Trepal and Carr families because the Trepals were reserved and childless and kept to themselves, whereas the Carrs were “kind of redneckish and ․ the children weren’t disciplined the way they should be.” The Carr children bothered Trepal by playing the radio too loudly and being disrespectful.
Pye estimated he had disagreements with Trepal at least 10 or 12 times. One time the Carrs were “working on [Travis’s] truck in the back of the workshop” and they and a visitor were listening to “a party tape” that had risque jokes and profanity on it. The tape was played pretty loudly, and Trepal came over to talk to Pye about it three times. Pye did not turn the tape down.
In March 1988, Trepal called the zoning board to complain about the Carrs converting their garage to an apartment, which Trepal claimed violated the zoning ordinance. A county codes inspector issued the Carrs a notice of violation for building without a permit, and Pye later got a permit.
One day in September 1988, Gelena’s former husband Ronald Chester was working on his truck and had the radio on. Trepal asked Chester to turn the radio down because Trepal was reading a book. Trepal was shaking and “acted like he was upset.” Chester turned the radio down, and “like two minutes later” Trepal came and again told Chester to turn the radio down, even though the radio was not playing loudly.
Both Trepal’s and the Carrs’ houses had their water supplied by wells. On occasion, each home had to share water by hooking up to the other’s well. In early October 1988, at which time one of the wells was supplying water to both houses, Trepal came over to the Carrs’ home to complain about their radio playing outside. Pye told Trepal they would turn the radio off soon. Trepal left, and they did so. Later Travis turned the radio back on while washing his car, and Trepal again complained. Pye told Trepal that Travis was “just listening to the radio and washing the car.” After Pye went into the house, Trepal disconnected the water hose to the Carrs’ home.
A few days before Peggy Carr became ill, Trepal’s wife had “a discussion” with Peggy “about some loud music.” The Carr children were playing the music outside and “[i]t was extremely loud even inside [Trepal’s] house.” Trepal’s wife asked Peggy to have the Carr children turn their music down. Peggy told Trepal’s wife that Peggy “didn’t have to.” Trepal’s wife believed Trepal was home with her at the time.
Trepal’s conversations with law enforcement reflected his animosity toward the Carr family. Trepal’s comments also showed that his hostility toward the Carrs continued even after Peggy was killed and the rest of the Carrs moved away. Trepal told Agent Goreck that Pye Carr was “always trying to sell him something” and “tried to sell him everything but his wife.” Trepal continued talking and “seemed to get agitated.”
Trepal told FBI Agent Brad Brekke that the Carrs had not been friendly to him and his wife, and that Pye tried to take advantage of them by selling them a barbecue cooker Pye had made. Trepal reached an oral agreement to buy Pye’s workshop behind his house for $10,000, but Pye backed out of the deal.
Trepal complained about a lot of people coming and going out of the Carrs’ house, and their having a lot of trucks. Trepal “acted angry and exhibited animosity,” which Agent Brekke “felt was unusual since the incidents ․ were seven or eight years old.”
5. Florida HRS’s Testing of Washings from Empty Coca–Cola Bottles
Although part of Martz’s testimony about the full Coca–Cola bottles is challenged here, other experts confirmed the presence of thallium in the Coca–Cola bottles at the Carrs’ home and in the brown bottle in Trepal’s garage. For example, Larry Blackwell, a Florida HRS chemist, tested the samples sent from the Carrs’ home, including the washings from the empty Coca–Cola bottles.11 Blackwell used two instruments, an inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectrometer (“AES” or “ICP”) and a graphite furnace atomic absorption spectrometer (“AAS”).12 The AES and AAS tests indicate only the presence and concentration of the metal searched for (in this case, thallium). They chemically decompose any other ions or elements in association with the metal, so they cannot indicate what compound of thallium was present in the samples. The washings from the empty Coca–Cola bottles were positive for thallium, as were urine samples from the Carr family members.