Toxic Love: The Shocking True Story of the First Murder by Cancer

Toxic Love: The Shocking True Story of the First Murder by Cancer

by Tomas Guillen


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The chilling true story of romantic obsession and murder by cancer from the New York Times–bestselling author of The Search for the Green River Killer.

Omaha, Nebraska, 1978. Sandy Johnson was in shock. Her husband, Duane, and young daughter, Sherrie, were violently ill when word arrived that her infant nephew just died of mysterious causes. Days earlier, the entire family was happy, healthy, and living the American dream. Now they were at the center of a terrifying medical crisis.
Duane soon died in a condition unlike anything the doctors had ever seen. As they raced to discover what disease or toxin could have done so much damage so quickly, Lt. Foster Burchard of the Omaha police began to suspect foul play. Sandy herself became a primary suspect, as did her ex-boyfriend Steven Harper—a man prone to violence who never got over their breakup.
In Toxic Love, investigative reporter and true crime author Tomás Guillén offers a detailed and vivid account of this baffling case from the day of the poisoning to the harrowing trial and the murderer’s eventual suicide on death row.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504059114
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 11/19/2019
Pages: 362
Sales rank: 975,685
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Tomás Guillén is a professor in the communication department at Seattle University and the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller The Search for the Green River Killer (1991). Raised in El Paso, Texas, Guillén graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism and began his career as a reporter for the Tucson Citizen. He joined the staff of the Seattle Times in 1980 and spent more than a decade covering the Green River Killer case with Carlton Smith. They were Pulitzer Prize finalists for investigative reporting in 1988 and published The Search for the Green River Killer a decade before investigators arrested Gary Ridgway for the murders. In 1995, Guillén’s articles on crime laboratories won the Silver Gavel award from the American Bar Association. He is the author of Toxic Love (1995) and Serial Killers: Issues Explored Through the Green River Murders (2006), and often is asked to discuss law enforcement and criminal justice issues on CNN, Fox, and Good Morning America. To learn more about the author, please visit

Read an Excerpt


Omaha, Nebraska Sunday Morning. September 10, 1978

After a late night of cards, Sandy and Duane Johnson slept in. Two-year-old Sherrie was the first to get up, shortly after nine. By then, the thick fog that hid the city at sunrise had burned off, unveiling a beautiful Indian-summer day that promised to be one of those humid Midwest scorchers.

While Sherrie ate a small bowl of cereal, her father shuffled sleepily into the kitchen and poured himself a large glass of milk. His face wrinkled up like a prune.

"This milk tastes funny," Duane complained.

His wife smelled the opening of the gallon jug and looked inside.

"It's not curdled or anything," Sandy said. "It looks fine to me."

"Something is wrong with it," Duane insisted, setting the glass down on the table. "It tastes real funny."

To avert an argument so early on a gorgeous Sunday morning, Sandy grabbed the gallon of milk and emptied it into the sink. That satisfied her husband, a happy-go-luck man who rarely grumbled about anything. Duane Johnson was twenty-four and the family's only breadwinner. He drove a truck for Hendrickson Equipment & Welding Supply Co., delivering industrial gases and equipment throughout the Midwest.

Still sleeping were the couple's infant son, Michael, and Sandy's sister, Susan Conley, who was nineteen and nine months pregnant. She'd been staying in the Johnsons' spare bedroom about a month, since she'd split up with her husband during a bad quarrel.

After breakfast, Sherrie complained of a stomachache, but at 10:30 she accompanied her mother to K mart anyway.

Duane stayed home to paint the outside of their modest three-bedroom home on Fontenelle Boulevard. The shoe box house with the A-frame roof stood amid a cluster of tall cottonwood trees next to a large vacant lot. It was hard to believe it contained three bedrooms, in addition to a bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room.

Small or not, it was the Johnsons' dream home. They'd bought it only eight months before, partly because it sat in a quiet, well-groomed neighborhood in the far north end of Omaha, miles from downtown and the city's business districts.

As the largest city of Nebraska, Omaha served as a national center for telemarketing companies that promoted and sold products by phone, and the headquarters for over thirty-five insurance firms. Most of all, Omaha was home to a compassionate people and Father Flanagan's Boys Town. The Catholic priest founded the home for boys in 1917 on the creed: "No Boy Is a Bad Boy."

To many, Omaha was Main Street America, a bastion of wholesome middleclass values. But on this blisteringly hot day, there was evil in the city. Duane Johnson and his little daughter Sherrie didn't know it, but while they were walking and talking, they were dying. Something was eating away at their bodies.

While Duane used a wide brush to turn his blue house a tulip yellow, Sandy's father and stepmother arrived. Harold and Elaine Betten were on their way home from church and dropped by to return a lawn mower they'd borrowed. Elaine Betten was known for telling corny jokes. Whenever someone asked her to spell her last name, she'd laugh: "Like we bet ten at the races, but we don't go. There we go again."

"If you're really busy," Harold shouted at Duane, who was halfway up a ladder, "we won't stay."

"No, no," Duane said with a grin. "It will give me a good excuse to quit painting. It's so hot out here."

Inside, the Bettens boiled water and fixed themselves coffee. Duane drank a cool ale. The couple indulged in a second cup of coffee with a piece of pecan pie before deciding to leave.

"Did you notice Duane?" Elaine asked her husband in the car.

"What do you mean?"

"He was talking in slow motion," she said. "Seriously, he was having trouble pronouncing his words."

If he'd overheard this remark, Duane Johnson would have been surprised. He thought he was fine. He went back to his paint can and brush.

He was still on the ladder at noon when Sandy unexpectedly returned home from the supermarket.

"What's wrong," asked Duane.

"Sherrie keeps throwing up," Sandy said. "She threw up all over the store. I had to leave the groceries in the basket."

As Sandy described the scene at the store, Duane abruptly threw up as well. It must be the flu, he decided. Suddenly Duane felt rotten all over. Both father and daughter went straight to bed.

That Sunday, Sallie and Bruce Shelton had risen at dawn to shampoo their carpets at their attractive brick rambler on Sharon Drive a few minutes away from the home of Duane and Sandy Johnson. Sallie was Sandy Johnson's younger sister. Sallie and Bruce planned a busy day and were eager to be out and about town. By nightfall they, too, would face the prospect of a terrifying death.

After arranging and rearranging the furniture in their home, the Sheltons scooped up their spunky eleven-month-old son, Chad, and buckled him into the family car, along with plenty of diapers and baby bottles. They planned to be gone all day.

"Where to first?" asked Bruce as he backed the car out of the driveway.

"The Nebraska Furniture Mart, of course," Sallie said.

Bruce wasn't surprised. In the months before Chad's birth, the Sheltons had spent almost all of their free time in the store trying to decide how to decorate the new arrival's room. Sallie and Bruce knew the store so well they might as well have owned it. The store was one of the state's largest furniture outlets, occupying almost an entire block off of Dodge Street, Omaha's main east-west thoroughfare.

At the store, Sallie and Bruce went straight to the light fixture section and bought a pair of stylish lamps they'd been eyeing for some time. Anxious to show off their latest purchase, Sallie and Bruce drove over to see Sandy and Duane. The two sisters saw each other frequently.

Both Sandy and Sallie were petite and pretty. Sandy possessed piercing blue eyes and wavy blond hair, like her father. Sallie took after her mother, a brunette with warm brown eyes.

While the sisters resembled each other in looks, they were opposites in most other ways. While Sandy seemed satisfied to live the life of a housewife, Sallie Shelton was a career woman. She sustained her family and was nearing a promotion to a supervisory position at Mutual of Omaha, the giant insurance company. Her nontraditional role in marriage was at the forefront of a trend soon to become commonplace in relationships. Bruce, a tall, muscular man who favored a mustache and goatee, repaired television sets for Professional Electronics, a small south-end business. He had a steady wage, but his job lacked potential, prestige. The marriage worked, though, and that's what mattered.

By the time the Sheltons arrived at the Johnsons' about 3 p.m., their clothes were soaked with sweat from the sweltering 91-degree heat.

"You're welcome to come in, but I have to warn you that Duane and Sherrie are sick," Sandy told her sister at the front door. "I think they have the flu."

"We'll just stay for a few minutes," Sallie said.

"Sandy served everyone cool beverages, then went into the bedrooms to check on her husband and daughter. They were taking turns in the bathroom, throwing up.

After quenching their thirst and displaying the new fixtures, the Sheltons waved good-bye and headed to their main destination, a birthday party for Bruce's niece.

Plenty of cake and ice cream were served at the party, but not much else, prompting the Sheltons to stop at a Taco Real on their way home. They loved Mexican food. As the sun inched toward the horizon just before six that evening, the family looked forward to watching 60 Minutes.

Sallie felt queasy while unloading the car, and upon walking in the house vomited. She thought little of it since she'd always suffered from a nervous stomach. After deciding to eat the tacos anyway, she fed her son bits of the burned hamburger filling. The tacos tasted funny, though. Actually, they tasted terrible and she threw them away. Bruce did the same with his.

A short time later, Chad threw up. There was something about the way he vomited that bothered Sallie. It wasn't just a normal baby's spit-up; his whole body trembled. Now that she thought about it, her son had been uncomfortable since early afternoon. The lethargy she had taken to be tiredness, in retrospect, may have been the beginning of an illness. Maybe it wasn't what they had eaten; maybe the Johnsons' flu had come home with them.

Cuddling her precious son and stroking his moon-shaped face, she fervently wished he could talk and tell her what was wrong. Gazing at Chad, she realized her own body ached. Her stomach hurt so much she went to bed before 60 Minutes even came on. Chad normally slept by himself, but, tonight, his mother tucked him in beside her.

At nine that evening, loud gagging awakened Sallie. It was Bruce. Vomit was caught in his throat and it seemed forever before he caught his breath. Within seconds, Bruce gagged again and gasped for an ounce of air. With each vomiting spell, she heard the pungent liquid splash all over the bathroom. She desperately wanted to get out of bed to help him, but she couldn't. During her brief sleep, something drained her of all energy.

To Bruce, the vomiting fits came so violently they felt like his stomach was exorcising something evil instead of simply spitting out a piece of food that disagreed with it. His whole body shook like an old motor out of tune. Once the vomiting ceased, Bruce could hardly move; he had to lie on this back on the bathroom floor to rest before dragging himself to bed. Sallie and Bruce tried sleeping, but they ached too much. Chad slept restlessly.

Although the Sheltons believed they were merely suffering from the Johnson's flu or possibly a bout of routine food poisoning, they worried about their infant son. Bruce, especially, found it hard to understand how Chad's body could endure a fraction of what he and his wife were going through. He couldn't recall ever feeling so sick, so physically wasted. And as he lay awake, his head started throbbing with excruciating pain. What was going on? What was making them so sick?

To convince himself it wasn't a bad dream, Bruce telephoned his own sister about eleven o'clock. She blamed it on the tacos. That comforted Bruce, but it failed to completely erase his concern. He called Dr. R. David Glover, Chad's physician, at home and described Chad's symptoms.

"Sounds like food poisoning," Glover guessed. "Let's see how he does. If you don't feel he's gotten any better by morning, bring him to the clinic." Bruce returned to bed and told Sallie what Glover had said. There wasn't much that could be done for ordinary food poisoning, according to Glover. Still, for most of the rest of the night, Sallie and Bruce vomited violently off and on. Each time, their stomachs ached more than the previous time.


Omaha, Nebraska Monday, September 11

Duane Johnson's entire body hurt so much — in every bone and muscle — that he didn't report for work. And his head ached so badly, he devoured aspirin six at a time. The aspirin did nothing to ease his pain. Sherrie, too, complained of pain racking her tiny body. She moaned constantly. Neither she nor Duane could eat without vomiting.

Sandy spent all day caring for her husband and daughter and wiping vomit off the bathroom floor. She couldn't clean it up fast enough.

That night, Duane and Sherrie again had trouble sleeping. To help the others get some rest, Duane decided he and Sherrie should sleep together in the main bedroom. Sandy slept with her infant son.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, Bruce Shelton felt a little better, but his midsection and head still hurt. He hated missing work, over anything, so he forced himself out of bed to his job. Sallie could just manage a weak good-bye.

All day, she stayed in bed, getting up only to care for her baby Chad, who was as tired and droopy as his mother. Chad normally ate baby fruit, crackers, bananas, and milk. Today, a taste or two of the fruit was all she could get him to eat, along with some water. Sallie ate nothing, mostly out of fear of throwing up.

In the evening, Sallie and Bruce lounged around the house, having little strength to do anything else, even call relatives.

With each passing hour, their usually active infant became more listless and, at times, could barely lift his head from his pillow. Before going to bed, his parents agreed to take him to the hospital if he didn't improve the next day.

Tuesday morning, September 12

The following day, Duane and his daughter felt a bit better. Still, they were unable to keep any food down.

Duane started developing nosebleeds. Every so often, big red drops plopped on the bed sheets, like a leaky faucet. They came more frequently as the morning wore on. Sherrie did not bleed, but her skin turned a dull white.

Concerned, Sandy called the Northwest Clinic and made an appointment for Wednesday afternoon with Dr. R. David Glover, the same doctor Bruce Shelton had called Sunday night.

Only five minutes from Immanuel Medical Center, the clinic was in a large, old two-story house with a brick veneer. The upstairs served as an apartment and had its separate entrance. The downstairs had been remodeled with a reception area and nine examining rooms. Six days a week, Monday through Saturday, Dr. Glover and his two partners treated patients between visits to Immanuel to follow up on the more severe cases and to deliver babies. For after-hours emergencies, the receptionist gave patients the physicians' home number.

The Johnsons and Sheltons had been visiting the Northwest Clinic for their health needs for a couple of years and most always were treated by Dr. Glover. Both families considered Dr. Glover their doctor.

Dr. Glover had a much different perspective: To him, the Johnsons and the Sheltons were indistinguishable faces in the waiting room. There was nothing unique about them; they were just like the hundreds who came in every year or so for a fever or a stubborn headache. In fact, Dr. Glover saw so many patients at the clinic — especially walk-ins — that he had trouble recalling the medical histories of the Johnsons and Sheltons. He couldn't even remember if he'd delivered their children, although he guessed he probably had. He had no idea that the two families were related.

In truth, Dr. Glover appeared a bit ambivalent about the Johnsons and Sheltons. To him, they were not really his patients: They were patients of the clinic, the family practice.

On the same Tuesday morning, Sallie Shelton awoke at 5 a.m. and after glancing at her son, she shook her husband: "Bruce, Chad doesn't look any better. Take him to the hospital."

Sallie struggled to help get Chad ready. She was not going to the hospital. She hated to think of her baby without her; yet, realistically, she knew she could not function. She was sure her sickness was food poisoning, not the flu. Still, it was difficult to believe food poisoning — a few lousy tacos — could make anyone so sick.

Bruce drove his son to Immanuel Medical Center, a tall white private hospital at the end of North 72nd Street in North Omaha. As he carried him into the emergency room at six forty-five, Chad felt like a limp rag. A nurse took the boy from Bruce while he provided information in an admissions process that seemed interminable.

No, Chad had never been severely ill. No, Chad had no history of exposure to a communicable disease. No, he had had no vaccinations in the last month. Allergies? None. Family medical history? Negative for bleeding disorders, TB, epilepsy, and heart disease. Mother? Where's the child's mother? Bruce explained that his wife was also ill and too weak to venture out of the house. The hospital employee writing down the information nodded understandingly and encouraged him to keep his spouse home.

By the time the admission paperwork was completed, it was close to nine o'clock in the morning. At that point, an emergency nurse turned to Bruce and smiled: "Go on. We'll take care of him." Bruce left for work.

While emergency room doctors ordered x-rays and blood work for routine laboratory tests, nurses readied a crib for Chad on the fifth floor in the pediatrics-young adult unit of the hospital. An Iowa native, Lynda Rummel, supervised the forty-one-room unit with the help of twenty-five nurses, who were always extremely busy at this time of the year treating children with bad colds or the flu. By 1 p.m., the baby had made his way up to Rummel's floor. Although suspected of suffering only from the "crud" — gastroenteritis — Chad was placed in Room 511 alone.

"He was put in a room by himself because we didn't know what he had," recalled Rummel years later. "He seemed like a normal, healthy baby. He was a little fussy, but his color and vitals were normal. Our goal was to keep an eye on him, give him plenty of fluids."


Excerpted from "Toxic Love"
by .
Copyright © 1995 Tomás Guillén.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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