Feb 15, 2017

How poisons have been used in assassinations across the globe

Matthew Dunn
February 15, 2017
INFAMOUS mafia hitman Richard “Iceman” Kuklinski admits he killed hundreds of people.

He developed a reputation for brutal deaths, including using guns, ice picks, crossbows and even allowing men to be eaten alive by rats in a cave.

But he would later confess his favourite method was poisoning his victims with cyanide — a fast-acting poison that prevent cells from using oxygen, causing respiratory failure or heart failure.

Quick, silent and deadly. The perfect murder weapon.

While there is no confirmation yet of exactly what was used in the apparent assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is said to have died as the result of being sprayed with a liquid at Kuala Lumpur’s airport.

The 46-year-old was taken to the airport clinic and told staff his face had been feeling extremely painful after he was sprayed with the unidentified liquid.

He was rushed to the hospital, but died on the way — two women believed to be North Korean operatives are the main suspects.

Toxicology expert Graham Nicholson said it is too early to determine what agent was used in the attack, with results not likely until Wednesday’s post-mortem into Kim’s death.

“The issue here is what material was used and how it would be detected, if something highly toxic very small amounts could have been used and it could require very sensitive analytic equipment to detect them,” he told news.com.au.

So with answers expected to take a few days, news.com.au has examined fatal cases of poisonings in recent times.


Richard ‘The Iceman’ Kuklinski claims cyanide was one of his favourite ways to murder his victims was with cyanide.

Kuklinski first discovered the ease and subtle nature of killing with cyanide from a fellow hitman dubbed “Mister Softee” because he drove an ice cream truck as his cover.
Kuklinski has detailed his crimes in his book The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer and in a HBO documentary The Iceman and the Psychiatrist.

He claims to have murdered many of his victims by spraying them in the face with the poison because all traces of the element disappear within days, making it almost impossible to locate post-mortem.

Kuklinski first committed murder at the age of 14 and was recruited by New York’s Genoese crime family after unquestioningly killing a random man on the sidewalk to prove his loyalty.

Kuklinski first used the poison to kill a Bonanno family lieutenant inside a popular New York disco.

The contract killer claimed to have jabbed his mark with a cyanide filled syringe when passing him on the dancefloor, which had left him dead before Kuklinski had even left the club.

Richard Kuklinski is believed to have killed between 100-200 men.

In order to test his new-found knowledge, the hitman admitted to walking down the street with a handkerchief over his nose and spraying a man in the face.

The victim then collapsed on the street and died, with a heart attack thought to be the cause.

He also used the method to kill a blackmailer in Zurich and several victims in restaurants with a quick spray of cyanide.

Kuklinski also fed cyanide-laced sandwiches to four cohorts he had been involved with for a robbery, leaving them all dead.
The following day he also poisoned the man who had arranged the job.

Kuklinski additionally takes credit for poisoning more than one victim with cyanide by simply spilling a laced drink on their clothes, which would gradually soak into their skin and kill them.

Of all the methods used, the serial killer said the best effect came from spraying the victim in the nose because they inhale it.

Kuklinski was convicted of five murders and sentenced to consecutive life sentences.

In October 2005, he died in prison at the age of 70 after being diagnosed with a rare and incurable inflammation of the blood vessels


Former Russian spy and KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by a rare, highly radioactive element.

In November 2006, MI6 agent and Russian spy-turned-dissident Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated by ex-KGB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun.

The agents lured Mr Litvineko to the Millennium Hotel in London’s Grosvenor Square, where he consumed green tea poisoned with polonium-210, which is a rare, highly radioactive element a trillion times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide.

With a half-life of just 138 days — the amount of time it takes radioactivity to fall to half its value — the polonium used to assassinate Mr Litvinenko was likely produced not long before his death

Once ingested, the element is rapidly distributed around the body and steals electrons from any molecule it encounters — essentially breaking apart the chemical bonds in living cells, causing them to die.

After Mr Litvinenko ingested the radioactive element, the former spy became ill and was taken to hospital where doctors were able to diagnose him with radiation poisoning.

The 44-year-old first suffered diarrhoea and vomiting, before rapidly losing his hair and having his immune system break down.

He died in hospital three weeks later, after the polonium spread to his bone marrow and caused multiple organ failure.
Forensic pathologist Nathaniel Cary said the post-mortem was “one of the most dangerous” ever undertaken in the Western world.

Former KGB agent Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died in his hospital bed three weeks after drinking green tea poisoned with polonium-210.

It was so hazardous specialists were required to wear two white suits, protective gloves and specialised hoods with their own air supply throughout the examination.

A frantic police investigation also led to a number of locations being quarantined and tested for traces of the radioactive material by forensic scientists.

The Millennium Hotel, Abracadabra lap-dancing club and Emirates football stadium were all locations that tested positive for traces of polonium-210.

Two planes at Heathrow Airport, the British embassy in Moscow and one of the assassins’ flats in Hamburg, Germany also tested positive.

In total, close to 700 people were tested for radioactive poisoning, with none of them found to be seriously ill.

After a two-month investigation, Scotland Yard detectives recommended Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun be charged with murder, but both denied any responsibility for the death.

At a news conference in Moscow, Mr Lugovoi repeatedly stressed his innocence and claimed British security services were responsible for the death.

Russian authorities refused to comply with extradition requests because it was against the constitution.


Authorities clean up after the sarin gas attack.

Almost 22 years ago, a terrorist attack in Japan saw members of a shadowy cult killing 13 people and leaving more than 6000 others suffering long term side effects after deadly sarin nerve gas was released in Tokyo’s subway system.

On March 20, 1995, perpetrators dropped plastic bags of liquid sarin on subway trains in five co-ordinated attacks during rush-hour.

Each of the assailants from Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo religious cult released the deadly nerve gas by piercing the plastic bags with metal-tipped umbrellas.

Developed in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, sarin is a clear, colourless, and tasteless liquid that has no odour in its pure form and evaporates into a vapour.

Once inhaled or absorbed through the skin, the gas paralyses the muscles around the lungs and cripples the respiratory centre of the central nervous system, ultimately causing death by suffocation.

While the deadly nerve gas is fast-acting and can kill people within minutes of contact, non fatal doses can still cause permanent harm to a victim’s lungs, eyes and central nervous system — a fate suffered by many commuters involved in the Tokyo’s subway sarin attack.

According to a New York Times report, passengers staggered out of trains and collapsed on the platforms following the attack.

“Subway entrances soon looked like battlefields, as injured commuters lay gasping on the ground, some of them with blood gushing from the nose or mouth,” the report read.

“Army troops from a chemical warfare unit rushed to the scene with special vehicles to clear the air, and men in gas masks and clothes resembling space suits probed for clues.”

Days after the attack, police raided Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, discovering and extensive preparations for chemical and biological attacks

Almost 200 members of the cult were convicted in connection with the attack, with cult leader Shoko Asahara and 12 others now on death row.

The former bodyguard of Putin was killed under mysterious circumstances.

While the aforementioned deaths can be attributed to certain compounds, not every case has an answer.

Former bodyguard to President Vladimir Putin, Roman Tsepov, was murdered by a mystery substance he had ingested with food or drink.

After a business trip to Moscow, Tsepov was admitted to hospital after falling ill and died three weeks later.

Dr Pyotr Pirumov said his patient’s case was unlike anything he had ever seen before.

“It was poisoning without a poison ... It was as if his immune system was switched off,” he said, reports the BBC.

A post mortem analysis suggested radioactive material had been used in the murder, with other sources claiming the poison was a medicine used to treat leukaemia.

Despite these findings, an exact cause for the bodyguard’s death was never recorded.

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