PITTSBURGH — A physician who treated a 41-year-old neurologist after she suddenly collapsed said Friday that he ordered a test that eventually revealed a lethal amount of cyanide in her blood because he could find no other explanation for her sudden illness.
Dr. Jon Rittenberger testified in the homicide trial of Dr. Robert Ferrante, 66, who is charged with poisoning his neurologist wife — Dr. Autumn Klein — by spiking her energy drink with cyanide.
Rittenberger was one of several doctors who treated Klein at UPMC Presbyterian hospital, where Klein also worked, after she collapsed in her kitchen just before midnight on April 17, 2013.
Prosecutors contend Ferrante, a renowned University of Pittsburgh researcher who studied Lou Gehrig's disease, laced his wife's creatine energy drink with cyanide that he bought with a university-issued credit card two days earlier. Ferrante allegedly told Klein, who was being treated for infertility, the drink would help them conceive another child. The couple's daughter, Cianna, was 6 when her mother fell ill. Klein died three days later.
Rittenberger, like other doctors who treated Klein and testified at Ferrante's trial, said he was stumped. He said he had ruled out nearly every cause that could have led to Klein's unexpected collapse and cardiac arrest, because "that is not typically something that happens to a young healthy person."
Doctors didn't initially consider cyanide poisoning because it's most often associated with people who inhale smoke during house fires or are victims of chemical plant accidents, Rittenberger said.
But high levels of acid in Klein's blood — which can be caused by certain poisons — prompted Rittenberger to test her blood for cyanide anyway "although this is unlikely," he added parenthetically in a medical report dictated on April 18, 2013.
Pittsburgh police charged Ferrante with his wife's death after learning the test revealed a lethal level of cyanide, and after determining Ferrante bought cyanide at his research lab two days before Klein was stricken. Investigators determined that Ferrante had done Google searches about cyanide poisoning and whether any emergency treatments his wife received after suddenly collapsing would remove the toxin from her blood.
Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini has suggested Ferrante didn't like the idea of trying to father another child at his age and was jealous because he suspected Klein was having an affair.
Defense attorney William Difenderfer has argued that his medical experts will dispute that Klein was poisoned, and that she instead fell victim to a mysterious ailment that caused her to complain of headaches and fainting in the weeks before she died. The defense also has suggested Klein may have been suicidal.
Klein's fellow neurologist and good friend Dr. Maria Baldwin testified that Klein wasn't remotely suicidal. Rather, Klein's career "was taking off" and she was happy and consumed with raising her daughter, if not entirely satisfied with her marriage, Baldwin said.
Baldwin acknowledged telling detectives that Klein complained of headaches and had fainted in church in the month before her death. She also said Klein was under pressure because of her demanding profession and had confided in an email shortly before her death: "I'm losing it on things. I'm going in and out lately."
Other doctors and Ferrante's research lab partner were expected to testify Friday, the second day of what's expected to be a three-week trial.