[This story originally aired on March 22, 2022.]
Lana Clayton said she found her husbanddead at the bottom of a staircase in their South Carolina home. The businessman, who created physical therapy clinics, had been married to his wife for five years when he died.
Initially, the coroner’s office ruled Clayton died from a possible heart attack. However, Clayton’s nephew, Nick French, a police officer in a nearby town, noticed something was odd about Lana’s behavior when he rushed to the mansion to console her.
“She made no mention of attempting to revive him,” French tells “48 Hours” correspondent Peter Van Sant. “And Steve always had his phone with him. We were not able to find Steve’s phone anywhere.”
Concerned about the nature of his death, the family asked for an autopsy and a toxicology test. The blood test revealed an unusual chemical – tetrahydrozoline – in Steve Clayton’s blood that would shift the investigation into a whole new direction.
What happened in the Clayton household? And could that case have led to a copycat crime?
A STRANGE ACCIDENT?
James Blackledge: I’m a Vietnam veteran. So, I’ve seen things, done things.
But James Blackledge wasn’t ready for what was about to happen as he rode by the home of Steve and Lana Clayton on the morning of July 21, 2018.
James Blackledge: I was out riding my motorcycle…coming down this road… … And all of a sudden, I see a woman running across this yard…and she was waving me down.
It was Lana Clayton who apparently had just run out of her house.
James Blackledge: She flagged me down, stopped me. And first thing she said was “call 911.”
JAMES BLACKLEDGE: Is this 911?
911 DISPATCHER: It is.
JAMES BLACKLEDGE: I was just ridin’ by and a woman came running out and said her husband fell down the steps and she thinks he’s dead.
As Blackledge stayed on the phone with the dispatcher, he watched Lana run across the street to a neighbor’s house.
Terry Floyd: All of a sudden, I heard this loud knock on the screen. … It almost sound like somebody, you know, was gonna bust the glass out. … It was Lana.
Terry Floyd is a close friend of Lana and Steve.
Terry Floyd: And I asked her, of course, what was wrong. And she just kept saying, “It’s Steve. It’s Steve.”
The two jumped into Terry’s golf cart and dashed over to the Clayton’s front door.
Terry Floyd: And I said, “Well, where is he?” And she said, “He’s at the base of the stairs there in the foyer.”
Peter Van Sant: And what were you thinking as all of this is unfolding?
James Blackledge: I just thought it was an accident, a strange accident. Then, what I really thought was strange, was she sat on the front steps. The man went inside the house.
Terry Floyd: I tried to get a pulse. … I couldn’t get a pulse. And I just, I knew he was dead.
According to Lana, Steve had come down with a bout of vertigo three days prior. News reporter Kristi O’Connor of CBS affiliate WBTV covered the story.
Kristi O’Connor: He was nauseated and dizzy and bedridden.
Peter Van Sant: Their bedroom was on the second floor of this house, right?
Kristi O’Connor: That’s exactly correct.
Lana said she checked on him around 11 that morning and found him sound asleep, so she went outside to mow the lawn.
Kristi O’Connor: She made sure he had his water. She had his medications and things next to his bed, made sure he had everything he needed.
Lana was a nurse – a calling that made Steve’s sister, Rosie, very happy.
Rosie Clayton-Leslie: I felt, wow, she’ll be there for him. God forbid something should happen, he should fall ill.
The couple met online in 2010. Three years later, they married in nearby Charlotte, North Carolina.
Rosie Clayton-Leslie: I sensed that my brother loved her very much, that she loved him very much.
It was Lana’s second marriage. Steve’s family had lost count on the number of times he’d been down the aisle.
Kris Phagan: I think the number’s somewhere around six or seven. … Steve loved being in love. … It didn’t always work out well for him.
Steve’s nephew, Kris Phagan, says his uncle was an accountant by trade who, in the 1980s, created a highly successful physical therapy business, targeting sports injuries.
Peter Van Sant: And he made millions off of this, correct?
Kris Phagan: He did. … He, then, fully retired at the age of 40.
Peter Van Sant: From all outside appearances, what was their life like here?
Kristi O’Connor: I would say, dare to say that they had it all.
But on July 21, 2018, when Lana came in after a couple hours of yard work, she discovered her 64-year-old husband was dead.
Terry Floyd: Myself and a few of the other neighbors, we consoled in her. … All the neighbors were behind her 110 percent.
When York County Sheriff’s Deputies arrived, they found Lana in distress over her husband’s apparent fall down the stairs.
TERRY FLOYD [BODY CAM VIDEO]: She’s kind of on a guilt trip about not checking on him.
OFFICER: Oh, no.
TERRY FLOYD: Just take a look to see if you see any signs of him falling or anything …
OFFICER: OK. OK.
TERRY FLOYD: Everything look OK?
OFFICER: Pretty much, pretty much.
The officer on the scene and a friend comforted her.
LANA’S FRIEND [BODY CAM VIDEO]: You can’t blame yourself for any of this.
SGT. DAY: Oh, no, not at all.
As word spread about Steve’s sudden death, his nephew, Nick French, a police officer in a nearby town, rushed to the mansion.
Nick French: She … gave me a big hug, started crying. … Right after that, I walked in where Steve was and saw him. … It was very much a shock. I loved Steve and to see him in a vulnerable position like that was very difficult for me.
Shortly after 1 p.m., Coroner Sabrina Gast received a call that Steve had died.
Sabrina Gast: I have a deputy coroner and she responded to the home.
Gast says her deputy saw nothing suspicious and believed the cause of death was most likely due to a heart attack.
Sabrina Gast: She concluded at that point in time that it appeared to be a natural death.
But being an experienced cop and investigator, Nick French couldn’t help noticing some red flags about Lana’s actions immediately after she found Steve.
Nick French: There were at least two phones in that house and she’s a nurse. Why wouldn’t she have called from one of those phones? And also, why wasn’t she doing CPR when they arrived on scene?
That’s when he began to make mental notes.
Nick French: Steve always had his phone on him. Always. It was his lifeline. … we were not able to find Steve’s phone anywhere.
Nick also noted Lana’s reaction when the deputy coroner asked about funeral arrangements.
Nick French: Lana said, “it’s just too much right now.” She had her head in her hands, and she said, “I have no idea.”
So, the deputy coroner offered to take Steve’s body to the morgue and run some tests.
NICK FRENCH [BODY CAM VIDEO]: I would do that Aunt Lana.
Nick French: And she looked up from her hands and said “that funeral home … the one that’s right down the street … Let’s take him there and have him cremated.” … and it was just that quick … She went from “I have no idea what I’m going to do” … to … let’s “have him cremated.”
Nick wanted to call Kris and let him know their beloved uncle had died. He says Lana insisted she didn’t want Kris to see his uncle in that state.
Nick French: Kris is an adult, he’s a big boy. That should be Kris’s choice. … I started thinking something’s going on. So, when she told me no the third time and yelled at me, I walked upstairs and called Kris.
Peter Van Sant: Why would you be excluded?
Kris Phagan: That I couldn’t tell you. It still puzzles me to this day.
Kris then called Steve’s sister, Rosie in Florida.
Rosie Clayton-Leslie: I still hear him crying. … I couldn’t speak. … It wasn’t real. It didn’t seem real.
For three days prior to his death, Rosie had been worried she couldn’t reach her brother on the phone.
Rosie Clayton-Leslie: Suddenly, there were no replies. … And that was not like him to just completely cut off … I thought it was very odd.
Also odd was what Nick would later discover in Steve’s upstairs bedroom.
Nick French: The state of the bedroom … indicated to me that Steve had been in that bed multiple days and he wasn’t able to get out of the bed. … Just a culmination of everything we saw out there was highly suspicious.
A FAMILY’S SUSPICIONS MOUNT
Kris Phagan: I try not to go into the house a whole lot. That’s where the bad memories are really.
For Steve’s nephew, Kris Phagan, visiting his uncle’s home, brings back mixed emotions.
Kris Phagan: But out here is where we enjoyed parties.
Peter Van Sant: In the best of times at this house what was it like?
Kris Phagan: A lot of fun. The dogs running around, the kids chasing them, Steve telling jokes, music going.
One favorite memory — the July Fourth party Lana and Steve threw just weeks before his death.
Kris Phagan: Steve was always big on July 4th. He had huge celebrations out here … We’d have a dance floor right here. … fireworks out there.
To most outsiders, the couple appeared happy and in love.
Terry Floyd: I thought it was a good relationship. … She always kissed Steve on the forehead there and said, “I love you.”
But Dr. Nan Saye, a veterinarian who took care of their dogs at the Clayton mansion, claims it was all a façade.
Peter Van Sant: When you saw the two of them together, were they a loving couple?
Dr. Nan Saye: No. No. I wondered why they got married. … It was strange … The simplest thing was that she did not speak when he was in the room.
Then there was a bizarre incident in the bedroom just two years before Steve’s death. Lana said she accidentally shot her husband in the head with a crossbow while he slept.
Kristi O’Connor: Steven himself … said it was an accident. Lana said it was an accident.
Miraculously, Steve’s injury was minor, and police never filed charges.
Peter Van Sant: I don’t know how many crossbows you have in your bedroom … But that seemed kind of strange, right?
Dr. Nan Saye: Yes.
Lana and Steve moved on from that incident. But two months before his death, Steve confided to Kris that their marriage of five years was in trouble.
Kris Phagan: He had mentioned … that he wasn’t as happy as he thought he was going to be.
When Kris got to the house that day, he comforted Lana. She told him she needed his help in organizing Steve’s affairs.
Kris Phagan: And I said, “Well, the first thing we need to do is find the will … and that’ll tell us what Steve’s wishes were in terms of whether he should be buried or cremated.”
Kris was startled by Lana’s response.
Kris Phagan: She said, “well, there is no will.” And I said, “no, there’s a will, I know that there is, I’ve seen it.” … Steve had asked me to be his executor. … And at that point she stood up and said, “I said there is no will.” And … she went into the house.
Nick French: My aha moment came about the same time.
Nick was gobsmacked when he heard Lana bad-mouthing Steve.
Nick French: “She was in the kitchen and she was telling these lurid stories of all Steve’s illicit drug abuse. … She used the words he was a hardcore drug abuser. … And she’s telling these stories and she’s laughing.
Peter Van Sant: And you guys had known him forever. Did you ever see him high on illicit drugs?
Kris Phagan: Never.
Nick French: Never. … She basically said that she didn’t want an autopsy done because she was worried about what the toxicology would show … And, you know, for me, it was jarring when I heard it.
Nick would soon be jarred again. He went upstairs, where Lana had said Steve was bedridden for three days.
Nick French: The bed was the worst part of the upstairs. … Just drenched with urine. … I asked Lana … And she said, “Oh, Steve does that when he has vertigo — that happens.”
Kris Phagan: Really made me think he was there suffering and could reach no one for help.
A short time later, Kris says Lana demanded that everyone leave.
Kris Phagan: When we got in the car — my wife and I — I said, “something is wrong.”
Nick was having a similar conversation with his wife.
Nick French: We were both of the opinion … that she had a hand in his death. … We didn’t know how.
Meanwhile, Rosie was trying to reconcile how Steve’s vertigo may have led to a heart attack.
Rosie Clayton-Leslie: It seemed too weird to attribute what was happening to him, to what we already knew were his very benign, light symptoms.
On Sunday, the day after Steve’s death, Kris and his Wife had planned to help Lana find his will.
Nick French: Lana … said, “do not come here. This is my house. … He was my husband. I will handle everything” … And she hung up.
That’s when Nick and his wife drove to Kris’s house.
Nick French: We looked at each other, and we went through the small talk … And I said, “something’s wrong.”
Kris Phagan: I said, “thank God,” because we feel the exact same way.
Nick French: And we went to work. … and we knew one of the first things that we had to do was get in touch with the coroner’s office.
It was a race against the clock. Lana had scheduled a cremation for the very next day.
Nick French: Steve … was at the funeral home. …And they can move forward.
Peter Van Sant: With whatever Lana says.
Nick French: Exactly.
Nick and Kris demanded the coroner order an autopsy and a toxicology test. She agreed.
Nick French: We were relieved at that point … but we also knew that Lana didn’t know.
When the autopsy was done, the family’s suspicions were confirmed. Steve had not succumbed to a heart attack.
Sabrina Gast | Coroner: They looked at the chest. They looked at the heart, the lungs Nothing really suspicious with the autopsy.
But the toxicology results revealed something sinister. Not hardcore drug use, but the presence of poison — a chemical found in eye drops. And in an instant, Steve’s death became highly suspicious.
Peter Van Sant: So suddenly … this could be a poisoning?
Demi Garvin | Forensic Toxicologist: Yes … it was without question the cause of death.
Sabrina Gast: Was it an accidental overdose? We didn’t know that. … Was it a homicidal overdose?
Demi Garvin: His mobility is limited … He’s incapacitated. … it will cause respiratory depression, which then causes death.
AN UNUSUAL DISCOVERY
When Coroner Sabrina Gast first reviewed Steve Clayton’s toxicology report, there was a chemical found in his blood that she had never heard of before.
Sabrina Gast: Hmm, what is tetrahydrozoline? I don’t know what that is … So, I had to look up what tetrahydrozoline was. … I was like, “whoa, wait.”
Peter Van Sant: And what is it? What is this drug?
Sabrina Gast: Tetrahydrozoline is the common ingredient in Visine.
Peter Van Sant: The eye drop.
Sabrina Gast: The eye drop.
Peter Van Sant: Get the red out.
Sabrina Gast: Exactly.
And Steve’s results revealed a large amount of the chemical, which is found in a number of brands of eye drops.
Demi Garvin: In fact, at a concentration of 68 nanograms per mil in the blood sample.
Peter Van Sant: And in English that means?
Demi Garvin: In English that means I’m very worried.
Peter Van Sant: It’s a lot.
Demi Garvin: It’s a lot.
Forensic toxicologist Demi Garvin was aware of the many ways tetrahydrozoline, also known as THZ, could be abused.
Demi Garvin: We refer to this drug as a modern-day Mickey Finn. … Where a substance is introduced into a beverage without the consent of the individual who’s going to consume it for purposes of incapacitating them. That could be for robbery. It could be for sexual assault. It could be for both.
In the movie “Wedding Crashers,” a character squirts eye drops into the drink of his rival, causing trouble.
Demi Garvin: Nausea, vomiting, reduced heart rate … dizziness, confusion.
But if a poisoner empties an entire bottle in someone’s drink, it can attack the respiratory system.
Demi Garvin: And if breathing slows sufficiently, it will cause respiratory depression which then causes death.
Poisoning with eyedrops is also the plot line of an episode of the CBS drama “CSI”:
There is tetrahydrozoline in the victim’s drink.
She killed him with eye drops.
Well it’s not that far-fetched.
Demi Garvin: It’s colorless, odorless and tasteless.
Peter Van Sant: So, like I have a water bottle here. If it was in there, I wouldn’t know it.
Demi Garvin: Correct.
The results of Steve Clayton’s toxicology were a potential game changer.
Peter Van Sant: The initial assessment at the scene is this appeared to be a natural death. … What are you thinking now?
Sabrina Gast: I’m thinking, “Wow, we’ve got some work to do” … the next phone call was to the sheriff’s office.
Kevin Brackett: Well, now, of course, there are a whole series of questions that have been raised.”
Solicitor Kevin Brackett acts as the prosecutor in York and Union Counties in South Carolina.
Kevin Brackett: The first and foremost, how did the Visine get in his system?
Sabrina Gast: We didn’t know if he had intentionally taken the tetrahydrozoline with the intent of harming himself.
To find out, the coroner called Lana in for an interview.
Peter Van Sant: Describe the woman that was sitting across from you.
Sabrina Gast: I would describe her as confident.
By now, Lana knew that an autopsy had been performed on Steve. What she didn’t know was that investigators from the sheriff’s office and the FBI were in the next room listening in.
Sabrina Gast: We had set up microphones in the office so that they could hear the questions … and her responses.
DEPUTY CORONER [interrogation]: We’ve got a couple questions. Let’s go over some things, like I said we got some of the reports back.
Sabrina Gast: We were trying to get information from her about how he used the product, how often did he use the product?
LANA CLAYTON: Somebody, somebody one time told him Visine would help him go to the bathroom … He put like two drops in his coffee and um, make him go to the bathroom.
DEPUTY CORONER: And how long had he been doing that for?
LANA CLAYTON: For years.
Sabrina Gast: He would put it in his coffee every morning so that he would have a bowel movement.
Demi Garvin It would not be something that you would ever want to do.
Kevin Brackett: What that comment did tell us is that she was aware … that we were going to find Visine in his system because she put it there.
SABRINA GAST: Um, let’s go over the toxicology … there’s a drug called tetrahydrozoline.
LANA CLAYTON: That is his Visine.
Sabrina Gast: Immediately she knew exactly what tetrahydrozoline was.
Peter Van Sant: You saw it on her face?
Sabrina Gast: She said, “Oh, yes, that’s Visine” … that was where it clicked for me of, oh, OK. This is kind of, this is really odd.
That’s when those investigators nearby entered the room, surprising Lana.
OFFICER 1: I’m a detective with the York County Sheriff’s Office.
LANA CLAYTON: I’m just …
OFFICER 2: Overwhelmed, I’m sure. Yes, ma’am. Now listen you are by no means in any trouble, we do wanna ask you some questions.
OFFICER 2: … you are a witness in this case for us … we have to read our Miranda rights to everybody, OK … you have the right to remain silent …
Lana Clayton began turning on her husband:
LANA CLAYTON: I’m wondering if he tried to commit suicide. … He had a mood disorder. … I always walked on eggshells. I didn’t know what Steven I was gonna come home to … or if he was angry. You know he could be really nasty, you know.
OFFICER 2: What was nasty Steve like?
LANA CLAYTON: He was really verbally abusive, you know, call me names, stupid, bitch.
Kris Phagan: We never saw any evidence of that.
Peter Van Sant: Never? [to Nick] Did you ever see it?
Nick French: I never saw it. And not only did we never see it, but there was no record of anything like that.
LANA CLAYTON: I feel I’m painting a bad picture of him. He wasn’t, you know, a monster.
The two investigators pressed her:
OFFICER 1: Right now, the death is suspicious in nature.
OFFICER 2: Did you make his coffee for him?
LANA CLAYTON: No, he made his coffee. … everybody keeps asking me, you know, about the coffee and I know they wanted to know about the Visine.
OFFICER 2: There was only two people in the house, Miss Clayton.
LANA CLAYTON: I know, I know.
OFFICER 1: It was you, and him.
LANA CLAYTON: I know.
OFFICER 1: Did he have any —
LANA CLAYTON: He always had the Visine on him.
OFFICER 1: Did he have any that day?
LANA CLAYTON: That’s what I don’t know.
OFFICER 1: You are in the nursing business though … wouldn’t you know the effects of it?
LANA CLAYTON: Sure. I didn’t think Visine was anything that would be serious to your, to your health.
With the tough questioning, Brackett says Lana got defensive.
LANA CLAYTON: I feel like you guys are, you know, doing your job and you’re, you know, wondering if I killed my husband and I did not kill my husband.
Lana then stopped the interview and returned to the mansion. Investigators followed her home where she continued talking. They recorded the conversation:
Kevin Brackett: After that conversation, the situation changes significantly.
What Lana Clayton told investigators was nothing short of a confession.
LANA CLAYTON: You know, I had this little table set up next to the bed with his tissues, his urinal, his, you know, medications, his Visine … And I just saw it and just, I was just so angry. … I just took and squirted it. … I think I put the whole thing in.
That amount of THZ would have caused Steve to stop breathing.
DETECTIVE: So, you — the whole bottle?
LANA CLAYTON: I think I did.
LANA CLAYTON: I squeezed it hard.
DETECTIVE: OK. So, where was he when you did this?
LANA CLAYTON: He was sleeping. … I don’t know — I just saw it there and I just I just did it. I don’t have an excuse, I don’t have — I just did it.
When Nick learned of Lana’s confession, he called Kris.
Kris Phagan: And he said, “She did it.” And I knew immediately what he was talking about. And I had a few choice words and screamed. I started crying as well.
Peter Van Sant: This was murder.
Kris Phagan: Correct.
WAS THIS LANA’S FIRST ATTEMPT?
After admitting she emptied a bottle of eye drops into her husband’s water, Lana kept talking to the investigators back at the mansion.
LANA CLAYTON: Just — what if I did kill him? What if I caused his death with the Visine?
She quickly transformed from a grieving widow into an embittered wife.
LANA CLAYTON: I just wanted him to just — I just wanted him to suffer.
Suffer, because Lana claimed she was fed up with Steve’s constant demands.
LANA CLAYTON: I was just, I was just angry. … He was just constantly, “Lana, come here, Lana, come here” you know “help me to the bathroom,” “do this,” “do that” and everything …
DETECTIVE: And it all just built up?
LANA CLAYTON: It just all, all, all just built up and I just …
Lana tried to convince investigators that she never wanted to kill Steve.
LANA CLAYTON: I just wanted him to have diarrhea.
DETECTIVE: To just suffer?
LANA CLAYTON: I wanted him to just be, miserable.
Kevin Brackett: She’s admitted that she’s poisoned him.
Solicitor Kevin Brackett.
Kevin Brackett: She’s trying to think of her story that keeps her out of you know the trick bag.
As Lana’s story evolved – it now included allegations of physical abuse.
LANA CLAYTON: He was verbally and physically abusive. He had hit me several times.
Peter Van Sant: Is there any evidence that he was physically abusing her?
Kevin Brackett: No, no.
Rosie Clayton-Leslie: The way she portrayed him — I don’t know that person. Nobody that knows Steve knows that person.
The unflattering portrait of Steve does not ring true for those who loved him. Iliana Ivanova was Steve’s girlfriend for almost three years before meeting Lana.
Peter Van Sant: Was he ever abusive toward you verbally or physically?
Iliana Ivanova: Never, never. He was nothing close to being abusive. … This is completely made up … everybody who knew him knew how generous and loving and kind he is.
His former partners shared similar sentiments about the abuse claims.
Kevin Brackett: They did not believe them. … Some of them still considered him to be the love of their life.
And what about that bizarre crossbow shooting incident back in 2016? Lana changed her story, admitting it was no accident.
LANA CLAYTON: I was trying to protect myself from him ’cause he was, you know, coming at me. … And I had picked up the crossbow and turned and I just shot it at him.
Nick French and Kris Phagan didn’t learn of the crossbow story until after Steve’s death. They don’t believe Lana was defending herself.
Peter Van Sant: Nick, what do you think of that story?
Nick French: Unofficially, horses—.
Peter Van Sant: Do you think that was an attempted murder?
Nick French: Absolutely. I think it was, yeah.
Kris Phagan: One hundred percent. … We think that was her first attempt at doing this.
After Lana’s devastating interrogation, investigators left her at the mansion to prepare an arrest warrant. That’s when she attempted suicide.
Kevin Brackett: She took some pills and turned the gas on. … She left notes … indicating …. that she felt bad about poisoning her husband … and that she couldn’t live with herself.
A neighbor went to the house that morning and called for help.
Kevin Brackett: She was treated briefly at the hospital and taken into custody at that point.
Brackett had developed a drip-by-drip theory of this eye drop crime.
Kevin Brackett: She incapacitated him with a smaller amount and then gradually ramped it up until the fatal dose.
That would explain why Steve was bedridden for three days prior to his death. Brackett theorizes that Steve may have somehow attempted an escape.
Kevin Brackett: He might have gotten a surge of adrenaline, realizing … that he was very, very sick — and he needed help and he tried to go for help and made it as far as the bottom of the stairs, where he died. … he couldn’t call for help. His phone could not be found after he died.
On August 31, 2018, more than a month after Steve’s death, Lana Clayton was formally charged with murder.
Kevin Brackett: I think Lana Clayton had several million reasons why she wanted her husband dead.
Peter Van Sant: And you’re talking about millions of dollars?
Kevin Brackett: Yes, exactly right.
Steve’s family speculates Lana started planning Steve’s death back in 2016, when Lana convinced him to move from North Carolina to the mansion in South Carolina.
Rosie Clayton-Leslie: It was important for her to be in South Carolina. And I think I was able to put some puzzle pieces together after the fact.
Kevin Brackett: She was married to a very wealthy man. And if that man were to die in the absence of a will … then he would die intestate which, under South Carolina law, leaves her inheriting the entire estate.
And remember, Lana insisted there was no will. Kris recalls she became agitated when he asked her about it the day Steve died.
Kris Phagan: She stands up. She turns, looks me right in the eye and says, “There is no will,” just like that.
Kris is certain Lana destroyed the will in a fire the neighbors saw her start the day after Steve’s death.
Kris Phagan: My personal opinion is that’s the first thing that she burned.
Kris Phagan: This is the firepit Peter. … his whole life in paper was burned right here.
About three weeks after Lana’s arrest, there was another suspicious death just 12 miles away in Mount Holly, North Carolina.
Kevin Brackett: The method of killing in that case was the same as ours, a poisoning with THZ.
Peter Van Sant: With eye drops?
Kevin Brackett: With eye drops, yes.
For investigators, it seemed like déjà vu.
Kevin Brackett: Our office was consulted on that because it happened in such close proximity … It’s very possible that the suspect in that case heard about our case down here, saw it on the news.
Stacy Hunsucker, a 32-year-old mother of two young children, was found dead by her husband Joshua Hunsucker. Just like in the Clayton case, her cause of death was initially ruled a heart attack.
Kristi O’Connor: Shortly after Stacy died, he collected almost $250,000 from two life insurance policies taken out on her behalf. And that apparently didn’t sit right with Stacy’s mother.
Mike Causey: We got involved because Stacy’s mother contacted us with the possible insurance fraud. … who would ever guess that an insurance fraud investigation could lead to a full-blown murder investigation?
A COPYCAT CASE?
Stacy and Josh Hunsucker had been married for eight years before her tragic death from an apparent heart attack. Stacy had suffered from heart problems and had a pacemaker.
Kristi O’Connor: They were high school sweethearts. They had two children together.
Stacy was a paralegal at one time and then was a preschool teacher. … He was a paramedic, a flight medic actually, at Atrium Health, the major hospital system in the Charlotte area.”
Reporter Kristi O’Connor says Josh’s actions after Stacy’s passing raised eyebrows.
In fact, babysitter Kailyn MacDonald, who looked after the couple’s children after Stacy’s death, says Josh was dating a coworker, Jennifer Elkins.
Kailyn MacDonald: I never saw him sad, ever.
Kailyn MacDonald: … he was happy with his new girlfriend, very happy. … It was always about Jen.
For Stacy’s mother, Suzie Robinson, that was a red flag. Another one was when she learned, just 48 hours after Stacy’s death, Josh started the process of collecting $250,000 in two life insurance policies. Suzie called the North Carolina Department of Insurance to investigate.
Mike Causey: Had it not been for Suzie …we may not have any of … this murder investigation.
Mike Causey is the commissioner of the North Carolina Department of Insurance — his agents got involved in Stacy’s case in May 2019.
Mike Causey: It was referred to our criminal investigations’ division. … initial reports from the local police department had it a natural death, heart attack.
But Stacy’s body had been cremated at the request of her husband.
Peter Van Sant: No autopsy.
Kristi O’Connor: No autopsy. Joshua actually did not want an autopsy done because he didn’t want her cut up.
But the agents got a huge break when they discovered Stacy was an organ donor and a vial of blood had been collected and stored before she was cremated. That blood was sent out for a toxicology screening.
Mike Causey: There was traces of some poison … specifically THZ … a common chemical that’s used in eye drops to get the red out.
Peter Van Sant: In the Hunsucker case, have you given authorities there some advice based on your experience here?
Demi Garvin: Yes … that the presence of the tetrahydrozoline in the concentration that was reported warranted further investigation.
Kristi O’Connor: They ended up … accusing him of poisoning her with tetrahydrozoline.
On December 19, 2019, 15 months after Stacy’s death, Hunsucker was charged with her murder. His attorney says his client is innocent, and the allegations will be strenuously opposed. He is free on bail.
Experts fear homicidal poisonings have been going undetected because their symptoms can mimic natural illness and labs don’t routinely screen for them.
Peter Van Sant: Do you think that this drug should be part of a basic screen in toxicology test?
Demi Garvin: Yes.
Peter Van Sant: Do you feel the same way?
Sabrina Gast: Yes.
Sabrina Gast: Because it is so innocuous. It’s odorless, it’s tasteless. …Anybody can buy it.
In a statement, Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Visine, said they are “devastated that anyone would use our product for such an abhorrent act” and “Visine is clearly labeled for external use only and should never be swallowed.”
In Lana Clayton’s case — she decided to plead guilty to tampering with food and drugs and voluntary manslaughter.
She continued to insist she never meant to kill him.
LANA CLAYTON: I would like to apologize to Steven’s family.
LANA CLAYTON: I did impulsively put the Visine in Steven’s drink and I did it with the intent to make him sick and uncomfortable.
Her defense team painted Lana as a victim who suffered from PTSD, stemming from sexual abuse in her past.
Kristi O’Connor: So, their claims were that she was sexually assaulted throughout her youth … and that went unreported to authorities … Then when she went into the U.S. Air Force … her defense team says that she was raped by three servicemen.
But that alleged assault also wasn’t reported. Lana told the court it was Steve’s treatment of her that made her snap.
LANA CLAYTON: I was upset about the abuse and just wanted him to leave me alone. I never thought it would kill him. I had never heard of Visine being deadly.
Rosie Clayton-Leslie: I told the judge … I knew it had to be very difficult to see someone who looks so frail, so gentle, so quiet and meek … and think that that person could be a cold-blooded murderer.
JUDGE BURCH: What a tangled web we weave, Miss Clayton you sure have tangled this one up.
On January 16, 2020, Judge Burch sentenced Lana Clayton to.
Rosie Clayton-Leslie: I didn’t think it was enough. … my brother was my world. He was the center of my world.
Kris Phagan: She … stole an amazing man … from a lot of people that loved him.
Nick French: … there’s a huge hole in everyone that knew Steve. And I think that that hole will be there for the rest of our lives.
Lana Clayton declined “48 Hours”‘ request for an interview, writing in an email, “it’s been a long journey for me, and it hasn’t been easy coming to terms with Steven’s death. … I’m now at peace.”
And as for Steve’s loved ones, they are struggling with their loss.
Rosie Clayton-Leslie: None of us can ever be made whole because Steven is gone.
Rosie prays the mother of Stacy Hunsucker may find peace.
Rosie Clayton-Leslie: We have a saying in Spanish … which means “the blood cries out for justice.” … I would like to one day meet the mother of that precious girl that was killed using the same method … ’cause I do believe her daughter’s blood was crying out for justice, too.
Lana Clayton has not been awarded any money from Steve’s estate.
Josh Hunsucker has not yet entered a plea and awaits trial. Stacy’s parents say they have complete faith in the judicial process.
Produced by Asena Basak. Ryan Smith and Michelle Sigona are the development producers. Hannah Vair is the associate producer. Mike Baluzy, Marlon Disla and James Taylor are the editors. Anthony Batson is the senior broadcaster producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.