A co-owner of the Prescott newspaper the Daily Courier said he was poisoned with thallium, a tasteless, odorless heavy metal formerly used in rat poison.
Joseph Soldwedel's account was published in a Courier article last week. He said he was going public to address rumors in the Yavapai County community.
Though it is unclear whether Soldwedel was poisoned intentionally, Prescott police said they are investigating the situation as a criminal matter. No arrests have been made, and Officer Dave Fuller declined to comment on possible suspects.
But Soldwedel told his newspaper that he has a “good idea” who may have poisoned him. He declined to air his suspicions until the police and prosecutors finish their review, but he said neither his son, daughter nor sister was involved.
'Elevated levels' of poison reported
Soldwedel declined to speak to The Arizona Republic and referred questions to his attorney, Norman Katz. The attorney also remained tight-lipped about the investigation and declined to comment on his client’s symptoms or the timeline of the alleged poisoning.
At some point in the past year, Soldwedel enlisted the expertise of Dr. Ernest P. Chiodo, a Michigan-based physician who specializes in forensic toxicology.
Chiodo told The Republic that Soldwedel had “elevated levels” of the chemical in his system and noted that its existence couldn’t be explained by environmental issues. Soldwedel’s water was tested and came back clean, and his career in the media industry doesn’t lend itself to accidental poisoning.
Some people who work in electronics, mining or at cement plants may be more susceptible to exposure, Chiodo said.
The Courier reported lab results indicated that between Nov. 29 and Dec. 27, 2016, thallium levels in Soldwedel’s body were 15 times higher than that of an average person. The report noted that additional toxic chemicals — including lithium, aluminum, barium and zinc — were found in his system.
Katz declined to provide The Republic a copy of the lab results.
“The question is, what is causing him to have elevated thallium levels?” Chiodo said. “I do not know that he’s been intentionally poisoned, and I don’t know who would be doing it, but based on my findings, the police should look into it.”
Soldwedel is president, CEO and co-owner of Western News&Info Inc., a family-owned and -operated multimedia company that also publishes the Kingman Daily Miner, Today's News-Herald in Lake Havasu City and other newspapers, shopper publications and magazines.
Thallium’s checkered history
Thallium has not been produced in the United States since 1984, but it's still imported to produce products such as electronics and optical lenses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The metal was historically used as a rodenticide, but the use was banned in the U.S. in 1965 following several poisonings of people.
But the blue-white metal is perhaps most notorious for its illicit use in murders. Colloquially, Chiodo said, the material used to be known as the “inheritance powder.”
Thallium’s qualities make it difficult for a person to detect upon ingestion, but its presence makes itself known soon thereafter. The CDC says adverse effects begin 12-24 hours after ingestion, and hit their climax two to three weeks after exposure.
Symptoms begin with nausea and vomiting, and progress to painful sensations in the body’s extremities. Severe cases can include respiratory failure; unusual, painful or burning sensations; muscle aches and weakness; headache; and seizures, delirium, coma and death after five to seven days, according to the CDC.
Perhaps the best-known case of thallium poisoning was that of Zhu Ling, a 19-year-old college student in Beijing believed to have been intentionally poisoned in 1995.
Zhu fell into a coma but ultimately survived, though she was left partially paralyzed and nearly blind, according to a report in the New York Times. Though Zhu’s roommate was a suspect, she was never charged, and the case remains unsolved.