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A Grisly Postscript to the Tylenol Scare Covers a California Marriage with a Cloud of Suspicion

updated 10/03/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/03/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was the night after Thanksgiving, 1982, when Susan Bowen, a 30-year-old mother of two, collapsed on the floor of her San Jose, Calif. home. Rigid, bone white, foaming at the mouth, she was rushed to nearby Good Samaritan Hospital, where doctors treated her for a stroke. But her husband, Richard, thought differently. The Extra-Strength Tylenol scare was barely eight weeks old, Susan had taken at least one capsule just before her seizure, and Richard became convinced she'd been poisoned.

Bowen, a sometime security guard who was divorced from Susan in 1977 and remarried her two years later, says he first suspected poisoning when hospital officials told him tests had revealed an unidentified chemical compound in his wife's blood and urine. He says he returned to the rented townhouse he shared with Susan, their son, Timmy, 6, and daughter, Becky, 2, checked a container of Anacin-3 capsules, and found that the medication smelled like ammonia. On Dec. 3, he says, he turned the capsules over to the State Department of Health Services, which officially confirmed the presence of cyanide in some of them. All bottles of Anacin-3 bearing the same code number were ordered off the shelves statewide.

Almost from the beginning, suspicion turned on Bowen himself, though San Jose police couldn't discount the possibility that they were dealing with a Tylenol-style copycat killer. "We were concerned about there being a mass murderer," says Sgt. John Cook. "We put out a lot of manpower. But if the Tylenol case hadn't happened first, this would have been open and shut." The police were not alone in their suspicions. Leaving the hospital, Bowen's brother-in-law, Fred Becker, who had learned of the poisoning over the radio, at first said nothing to his anxious wife, Susan's sister, Beatrice. "We were both real quiet for a long time," he remembers. "Then we looked at each other and said, 'I know what you're thinking. He did it.' " "At the hospital," says Beatrice, "Rick was so dogmatic about Susan being poisoned, so irrational, so persistent, that nobody would do anything about it because they all thought he was nuts. He said to me, 'You know, if there's cyanide in those pills, I'm going to be the first one they suspect.' "

In support of their case against Bowen, who faces trial this fall on charges of attempted murder and willfully poisoning a medicine, police claim he took out $100,000 worth of insurance on his wife's life just a month before she was poisoned. (He did not pay the premium, however, so the policy lapsed before she was stricken.) Police say they also have proof that the 1,371 nanograms of cyanide ingested by Susan—a lethal dose—came not from a tainted Anacin bottle but from a capsule of the prescription sleep-inducer Dalmane, which Bowen had obtained the night before—supposedly for himself—from neighbor Chris Calder, a medical student who police say was not involved in the poisoning.

Yet Susan Bowen herself told police she had collapsed after taking Anacin-3. Investigators questioned her in her hospital room, and though she was unable to speak, she replied by using a small typewriter. When they asked her why she had said what she did, Susan reportedly typed: "Because Rick told me to." Why had he done that, they asked her. Susan tried to talk, then started to cry. "Because otherwise," detectives say she wrote, "it would look like he had tried to poison me."

As damning as these statements might appear, they may be inadmissible in court, since Susan says she has no recollection of making them. Far from turning against her husband, in fact, she has returned home to him and their children, presenting a picture of determined domestic tranquillity. Conceding that her parents fear for her safety ("They don't believe in Rick anymore"), she insists she does not share their misgivings. Her speech slowed by residual brain-stem damage as a result of her poisoning, she describes her husband as "strong, sensitive and loving. I can lean on him. He leans on me, too. We tell each other our problems."

Others see the relationship in a different light. Susan's mother, Florence Lyon of Paso Robles, Calif., confirms that she once took her daughter for counseling to a center for battered women, and San Jose police say Bowen had apparently struck his wife in the past. "We see a lot of this," says Sergeant Cook. "A wife refuses to testify against an abusive husband because she feels she doesn't have a future without him." Beatrice Becker goes further. She considers her sister, a shy, Bible-reading woman, the psychological captive of both a violent husband and a domineering, aggressively religious mother-in-law. "She's not the same person she was," says Becker. "Before the poisoning, she was very independent. She wouldn't put up with all this. But Rick's mother, Claire Ramba, is very opinionated, very pushy. She's able to manipulate people in the name of Christianity. She's always telling Susan, 'It's God's will that you do this or do that.' It was Claire that got Rick and Susan to remarry after the divorce. I don't want to hurt my sister, but in essence I think Claire has taken over her mind."

Becker points out that before her sister was poisoned, she suffered for several months with a painful uterine condition that eventually led to a hysterectomy. It was then, Becker believes, that Susan fell into a dangerous dependence on her husband, whom Becker characterizes as a liar with an explosive temper. Several years ago, Becker says, just before the Bowens' divorce, she saw Bowen attack both his wife and his mother. "I got so upset I hit him, and he looked at me and just stopped," she says. "If Claire denies that, she's a liar." (Mrs. Ramba does deny it. "Rick and I have had our go-rounds," she says, "but he's never laid a hand on me.") Later, Becker says, Bowen returned with a gun and threatened to use it, but police were called and they confiscated the weapon.

The San Jose Mercury News, meanwhile, has reported that police investigations revealed that Bowen had been known to carry a gun, that he was once arrested for assault with a deadly weapon, and that in 1978 he allegedly tried to run down a girlfriend and his sister with his car. The Mercury News, which still employs Bowen in its circulation department, has also reported that he was discharged from at least four jobs in the past five years (Bowen insists he left all of them of his own accord), and at least one of his former employers has expressed doubts about his stability. Another, Custom Security Inc. of San Jose, told police he had failed to return valuable company property, and Bowen has been charged with grand theft.

Rejecting this bleak picture of her son is Claire Ramba, who divorced Bowen's father when the boy was 7 and soon afterward married Chuck Ramba, now vice president of a local electronics firm. "The police have painted a portrait of someone I don't know," she says indignantly. "This is not the Rick who fixes everyone breakfast on Saturday mornings as a treat, who takes his kids to the park to play with them, who builds models with his son." If there were problems in the Bowens' first marriage, she says, it was only because they married so young, just two years after graduating from Cleveland High School in the San Fernando Valley. Mrs. Ramba denies influencing Susan to return to her husband and says everyone in the family has been deeply touched by Susan's recovery from the poisoning incident. "It's God's work," she says, "a miracle. It's been a growing experience for each one of us. Watching Rick come through all that, watching him leaning over Susan's hospital bed—he has a very bad back, anyway—stroking her hair, pleading with her, telling a joke, anything just to get her to stay alive. They told me in ICU that she wasn't responding, but I knew she was. I saw her squeeze his hand."

Bowen himself maintains that the charges against him are totally false, and that grisly accounts of his past behavior are a compilation of gross exaggerations and lies. He denies a quote attributed to him in the Mercury News confessing to a "history of violence toward women," and while admitting he struck Susan before their divorce, he says he cannot recall why. "We're good friends now," he says with a shrug. "Neither one of us is dependent on the other. There are no demands, no henpecking. Sue has a lot of freedom." He says he has passed psychiatric tests "with flying colors" and that he has no intention of seeing a therapist. "I'd be spinning my wheels," he says. "My problems are legal, not mental."

In the eye of the storm, Susan Bowen seems almost preternaturally content with her fate. Yes, she says in a dispassionate monotone, Rick once hit her. Yes, he had an affair while they were separated. No, she doesn't think he would do either again. She isn't sure why he left her in 1977—"He just left," she says—and adds that she remarried him "because I always loved him." She calls Claire Ramba her "second mother" and is currently taking a microwave cooking course with her. If her marriage should fail again, she says, she would simply go back to work at Chuck Ramba's company. She, too, has never been in regular therapy nor has she seen a marriage counselor. God, she says, fulfills all her needs. "Faith drew Rick and me together," she declares softly, "and faith has sustained me ever since." While such acceptance may seem to some like tranquillity, to Beatrice Becker it has the ring of defeat. Once, she believes, her sister was intimidated by threats of violence from Bowen. "Now they don't have to threaten her anymore," she says glumly. "She's like a little puppy. When he says sit, she sits."

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