Peggy Carr first fell ill in October 1988, complaining of chest pains, tingling in her hands and feet, and nausea. She tried to shrug it off as circulation trouble, but the symptoms only grew worse—vomiting, hair-loss and excruciating pain. Within weeks Carr, 41, a waitress in Alturas, Fla., lay curled up in a coma. Meanwhile her son. Duane Dubberly, then 17, and her stepson, Travis Carr, then 16, also became sick. Duane dropped from 175 to 92 lbs., while enduring great suffering. "I've never experienced the pain I had in that two-month period," he says. "It was like having a humongous pair of pliers with 1,000 needles clamping on my feet." Tests showed that the three were suffering from poisoning by the rare heavy metal thallium, which was traced inexplicably to an eight-pack of Coca-Cola Classic bottles found in their home. Tiny amounts of the metal were also detected in three other members of the family, including Peggy's husband, Parealyn "Pye" Carr, now 47. Beyond cure, Peggy clung feebly to life for four months until Pye had her life support removed. She died March 3, 1989. Being younger and stronger, Travis and Duane survived.

From the beginning, authorities in central Florida's Polk County, known for its orange groves and rural pace, believed that the family had been poisoned deliberately. Thallium, once an ingredient in rat poison, was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in the early '70s, and its use has been mainly restricted to universities and other research facilities. The trouble was that county homicide investigator Ernie Mincey, 41, could not at first see any motive for the crime. He cleared the members of the immediate family; not only had Pye ingested some of the poison himself, but there seemed to be no compelling reason why he would want to kill his wife, much less his children, whom he adored. "There was no insurance policy that someone could have benefited from," says Mincey, "and there were really no ill feelings."

But Pye did provide Mincey with the first clue in the "Mensa murder," a case that pitted authorities against an ingenious and arrogant killer who apparently fancied himself so smart that no mere policeman could ever bring him to justice. Pye mentioned that about five months before his wife and sons fell ill, the family had received a mysterious, threatening letter, which they had saved. "You and all your so-called family have two weeks to move out of Florida forever or else you all die," said the note, which was typed on a yellow Post-it. "This is no joke."

That was all—no name, no explanation. But in examining the envelope, Mincey noticed something intriguing: It had been addressed to Pye Carr in Bartow—which happened to be the proper way to direct a letter to a person in Alturas if the recipient, like Pye Carr, had a mailbox at home. From that, Mincey concluded that the letter could only have come from someone who was familiar with the town's quirky address system—probably someone who lived in Alturas.

No one among Alturas's 600 residents seemed to have a reason to kill Peggy or Pye. Certainly no one suspected George Trepal, 42, an intelligent man deeply interested in science and technology, who lived next door with his wife, Diana Carr (no kin to Pye), 41, an orthopedic surgeon. Since moving into their white, two-story, wood-frame house in 1982, George and Diana had occasionally complained about the Carr kids playing loud music or riding their all-terrain vehicles on the couple's property, but there hadn't been any arguments that seemed to be serious. Thinking back, though, Pye told Mincey that sometime in 1984 or 1985, Pye's two Rhodesian Ridgebacks had fallen ill mysteriously and died not long after Trepal had complained about the dogs chasing his cats. More to the point, two days before Peggy had first fallen sick, she and Diana Carr had gotten into a shouting match about the loud music.

When Mincey went to talk with Trepal, he didn't really believe he would learn anything significant. The first interview changed his mind. Mincey began by asking if Trepal knew of any reason why someone would try to poison the Carrs. Trepal replied, "Someone was after them, someone wanted them to move out"—a response, Mincey immediately realized, that had "the same tone, same verbiage" as the threatening note, which had not been made public. But Mincey's suspicions didn't gel until later, after he had checked on some of the information that Trepal had given him and concluded that the man had something to hide. "His entire interview with us was a lie," says Mincey. "The more we tried to learn who George Trepal was, the more we found that out."

Trepal told Mincey that he was a computer programmer and technical writer who worked each day from 7 A.M. until after dark out of his wife's office in Bartow. Mincey soon learned that Trepal actually maintained his own office in Winter Haven and worked varied hours. But if that lie appeared relatively harmless, another did not. Trepal had said he didn't know anything about thallium except what he had seen on TV newscasts. A criminal check disclosed that Trepal had been arrested in 1975 and had served 2½ years in a Connecticut prison for his part as a chemist for one of the largest methamphetamine manufacturing operations in the Southeast. As Mincey learned, thallium is one of the ingredients that can be used to make a base product for "speed."

Trepal had been born in New York City; his father was a salesman, his mother taught in an elementary school. He had entered South Carolina's Clemson University in 1966 and studied chemistry for two years. He used that training while in Danbury prison to teach chemistry to fellow inmates. Records also show that he repeatedly complained to corrections officials about the noise from radios on the cell block. It isn't clear what Trepal did after getting out of prison, only that he ended up in Columbia, S.C. He started dating Diana Carr, who at the time was doing her residency in Augusta, Ga. They met at a social event sponsored by Mensa, a worldwide organization composed of people who score in the top 2 percent on IQ tests. For George and Diana, it was a happy meeting of the minds. In Diana, outgoing and driven, Trepal found the ideal complement for his shy and studious personality. "Being in the 2 percent, both were a little off-center, not totally socially adept." says Stewart Prince, a fellow Mensa member and friend of Trepal's.

The couple settled in Alturas in 1982. Diana worked long hours and didn't appear to mind supporting George, who worked mostly on his own computer projects. They spent most of their free time socializing with other members of the Polk County Mensa chapter. Among their favorite activities, investigators learned, were the so-called Mensa Murder Weekends, in which some of the 70 or so Men-sans and members of the public would get together once a year at a local hotel to act out scenarios for committing the perfect crime—all in good fun, of course. In the weeks before the get-together, George would usually do the research for the proposed crime, just to make sure that all the details of the scripts Diana wrote were accurate. "For a Mensa event, you wouldn't go ahead with a murder that involved poison without checking out the poison," says Prince. "You'd want to have everything right."

Despite the tantalizing clues and his suspicions about Trepal, Mincey still had no evidence. To forge a link between his suspect and the thallium poisoning, he called in Susan Goreck, now 35, a veteran of the Polk County Sheriffs Department with seven years experience in working undercover. Posing as "Sherry Guin," a Houston woman fleeing from an abusive husband, Goreck's job was to befriend Trepal and his wife to find out what she could. The first part proved easy enough. She met George and Diana at a murder weekend in April 1989, and the three quickly became chummy. Because Diana worked long hours, "Sherry" ended up spending most of her time with George, either meeting for lunch or sitting around talking.

It soon became evident that George resembled the psychological profile drawn up by the FBI to help in identifying the sort of person who might commit this type of poisoning murder. "A person who might do something like this doesn't have the intestinal fortitude to deal with situations directly," says Bill Hagmaier, an agent at the FBI Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Va. (the same unit featured in the current hit movie The Silence of the Lambs). "He deals with conflict in a cowardly way." During an incident staged to test Trepal's response, that insight seemed to be borne out. Another undercover agent pretended to be Sherry's abusive husband, and when the two got into a heated argument in front of Trepal, he literally ran away.

At times Trepal seemed almost determined to leave clues. For the Mensa murder weekend. Trepal prepared a booklet that included the observation that "when a death threat appears on the doorstep, prudent people throw out all their food and watch what they eat." Despite her growing suspicions and her fear that she might be discovered, Goreck acknowledges that she didn't find the cat-and-mouse game entirely creepy. "Sherry found George to be very interesting," she says. "He can talk for hours on a subject, and he has a certain wit." Still, like any good pro, she never let her guard down. "Whenever we'd go out to eat," she says, "if I left the table during the meal to go to the bathroom, I wouldn't eat anything else that I'd left at the table after I came back." Though Trepal apparently never doubted Guin's cover story, he never admitted to the murder of Peggy Carr.

The breakthrough in the case came in December 1989, after George and Diana had moved to Sebring, Fla., so that Diana could set up a new practice. They were delighted to rent their house to their new friend Sherry. Her first night there, Goreck and other investigators conducted a thorough search. In the garage they found a three-inch brown bottle containing a whitish crystalline substance. Lab tests showed that it was thallium nitrate, the same form of the poison used on the Carrs. After a grand jury returned a 15-count indictment against Trepal in April, authorities searched the house in Sebring. Among the items found were books on poison and a copy of the Agatha Christie mystery The Pale Horse, a tale about a pharmacist who kills by putting thallium in food and medicine.

The jury that heard Trepal's case-based on little more than circumstantial evidence, his lawyer kept pointing outlast month deliberated for only six hours before finding him guilty of first-degree murder. This week Bartow Circuit Court Judge Dennis Maloney will decide whether the killer should die in the electric chair. Trepal maintains his innocence, and wife Diana is assisting with his appeal. But those who helped convict him have no doubts." [Trepal] is a cold-blooded, evil individual," says Mincey. "This was a painful death. He could have been more humane with his poison, but he chose thallium." For her part, Goreck sees the murderer in even more chilling terms, as a man who would kill not so much from hatred or rage as for sheer intellectual pleasure. "I think this was all a game to him," she says. ""He thought he'd committed the perfect crime."

Bill Hewitt, Meg Grant in Alturas

  • Contributors:
  • Meg Grant.