Inside the lakeside estate he had restored to look like George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, Steve Clayton, a former wrestling coach, retired businessman and millionaire, lay dead at the bottom of a grand staircase.
The 64-year-old Florida native had been residing in Clover, South Carolina, a small town on the North Carolina border, near Charlotte. He had married Lana Sue Clayton six years earlier, and they lived together in their historic replica estate. Lana, 53, was a nurse at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which made it even harder for their neighbors and friends to believe the news when she was arrested and charged with murdering Steve with eye drops on August 31, 2018.
“I did impulsively put the Visine in Steven’s drink, but I just did it to make him uncomfortable,” the 53-year old grandmother later confessed in court. “I never thought it would kill him.”
The active ingredient in over-the-counter eye drops, like Visine, Clarine or Murine Plus, is a chemical called tetrahydrozoline, which works to reduce redness in the eyes by constricting the blood vessels. But when the chemical is ingested and absorbed by the intestines, the result can be fatal — and it doesn’t take much. If you were to apply two drops to both eyes six times a day, that’d be roughly one milliliter of fluid, which of course isn’t deadly when applied to your eyes. But if that same amount was ingested, it would be enough to kill a child. Moreover, most eye drops bottles hold 15 to 30 milliliters, certainly enough to drop an adult.
On a Thursday in July, Lana added eye drops to her husband’s drinking water, and after suffering for three days, on Saturday, July 21st, he collapsed and fell down the staircase in their estate. His wife claimed that his death was accidental — again, she just wanted him to suffer for a few days.
In court, prosecutor Willy Thompson accused Lana of premeditated murder as well as a cold indifference to her husband’s suffering. Circuit Court Judge Paul Burch agreed with him. At one point in the trial, he asked her, “How can you maintain that you did this to teach him a lesson, when it’s obvious from the facts that you let him suffer for three days? You ignored him.”
There were other complicating details, like the fact that Lana had destroyed Steve’s will, which left her as the undisputed heir to his fortune. She’d also hidden his cell phone, which meant he couldn’t call anyone for help.
The prosecutor focused on the cause of death, arguing that Visine eye drops would be a perfect way for a murderous nurse to avoid detection. “She almost got away with it,” he pointed out. Indeed, the local police had missed the tetrahydrozoline. As the prosecutor explained in court, the presence of the poison was discovered independently by a private lab because it isn’t the sort of thing a police lab typically tests for, especially in light of a fall. However, a coroner’s autopsy later confirmed the private lab’s results.
In her defense, Lana’s lawyers focused on her lack of a criminal record. Unfortunately, that clean record also includes the time police responded to a call that Lana had shot Steve in the head with a crossbow while he slept. When cops arrived, Steve insisted that the incident was an accident, and no charges were filed.
Eventually, Lana pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 25 years. During sentencing, her lawyer asked for leniency, claiming that she’d suffered abuse from her husband, which caused her to react with poison. “Something did snap. It was too much for her to bear,” he argued in court.
In the weeks after the trial, a copycat criminal allegedly attempted the same method of murder. Paramedic Joshua Lee Hunsucker, 35, was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife. After criminal investigators missed the presence of tetrahydrozoline, the mother of the deceased put forward allegations that Hunsucker had gotten away with insurance fraud after he received two sizable payouts for his dead wife’s life-insurance policies, totalling $250,000.
The money provided the motive. The victim’s generosity provided what could be the smoking gun. She was an organ donor, which meant a blood sample was drawn shortly after her death, and it showed — you guessed it — toxic levels of tetrahydrozoline. Hunsucker appeared in court in November, and his case is still pending.
Meanwhile, another alleged Visine poisoner popped up in the greater Charlotte area in June 2019. Jaymee Lyn Cruz was arrested for allegedly dosing her fiance’s soda with eye drops. He saw her spike his drink, however, and was unharmed. Cruz claims she got the idea from the 2005 Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson comedy Wedding Crashers and told deputies she just wanted to make her fiance sick.
There’s an old saying in the field of toxicology that “the dose makes the poison,” as even water can kill you if you drink enough of it. That still holds true in Visine’s case, it’s just that the dose is measured in drops.