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East Neighborhoods
Body exhumed in Indiana County poisoning probe found free of toxic cadmium

Friday, June 13, 2003

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

INDIANA, Pa. -- Had investigators found lethal levels of poison in the remains of 58-year-old Anna Nagg, the discovery might have given them direction in investigating the poisoning of Russell Repine, a seemingly healthy retiree who died last year with an immense amount of toxic cadmium in his body.

Michael A. Baker, chief deputy coroner for Indiana County, speaks about the cadmium poisoning death of Russell Repine, of Homer City. That death caused officials to exhume Anna Nagg, but no poison was found in her body. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Yesterday, though, six months after Nagg's remains were exhumed and examined, those investigators said that test results yielded nothing suspicious and that the deaths are not linked.

Nagg, a Saltsburg resident who was chronically ill well before her death, friends said, died in November 2001 at Latrobe Hospital of what Indiana County Deputy Coroner Michael Baker said will be listed as natural causes, multiorgan failure.

For now, Baker said, there are no plans to exhume any of three other bodies -- all members of a southwest Indiana County family, two of whom died suddenly in the mid-1990s, according to the coroner's office.

One of those deaths was listed as a heart attack; the other was deemed suffocation during a seizure.

Investigators will not discuss the possible link between those deaths and the Repine poisoning.

"I will not rule out the possibility that other autopsies may be necessary," Baker said yesterday.

For now, though, investigators are left with the same mystery.

They know that Repine died in March 2002 of cadmium poisoning -- 60 to 100 times the normal levels of the toxic heavy metal, so much that Baker figures it killed him "within hours" after it got into his system.

What investigators don't know is how the cadmium got into Repine's system.

"It's definitely an open criminal investigation," state police Sgt. Bernard Petrovsky said.

Baker said he hasn't ruled out that the poisoning was an accident or suicide. Instead of listing the death as a homicide, the deputy coroner said, "it's listed as 'pending.' "

Repine died in his home in rural Brush Valley, where he lived alone -- seemingly healthy, son Kerry Repine of Stafford, Va., said at the time. He was discovered by a neighbor, lying on his couch "as if he were sleeping," Coroner Thomas Streams said.

At first, the death was filed as a heart attack. But routine coroner's office tests, their results not available until after Repine was buried, detected the poison.

A subsequent autopsy showed "very excessive" levels of cadmium, often used in rechargeable batteries and metals coatings, Baker said.

Hair samples -- which can provide clues to poisoning in the same way that the rings of a tree trunk record years of drought and rain -- showed the cadmium got into him shortly before he died, Baker said.

That led to the Nagg case.

"Two independent sources said that the deaths of Mr. Repine and Mrs. Nagg may have been suspiciously linked," Baker said yesterday.

He would identify neither the sources nor a notation on Nagg's hospital record, compiled shortly before she died, that caused investigators "sufficient concern" and added to suspicions.

Nagg and Repine probably knew each other as teenagers when they lived in the same end of the county, friends said. But in adulthood, the two lived 22 miles apart with little or no contact.

In December, 13 months after she died, Nagg's body was exhumed.

But nothing in her tissue samples was outside normal ranges, Dr. Isidore Mihalakis, a forensic pathologist, concluded. Investigators decided that Nagg indeed died of natural causes and closed the investigation into any link between the Nagg and Repine deaths, Baker said.

One local resident who befriended both Repine and Nagg was Elaine Holodnik, 59, who said as the investigations progressed that she, too, was baffled and wanted to see the cases solved.

The other three bodies considered for autopsy are Holodnik's husband, her teenage son and her widowed mother -- three exhumations to which Holodnik said she would consent.

"We just have to sit back and look at this entire investigation and come with a consensus on what we want to do," Baker said.

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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