Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Public safety

His wife said he died falling down the stairs. Police say she poisoned him - with eye drops.

The house sits on an exclusive thumb of land dangling into Lake Wylie on South Carolina’s northeastern edge. Setting out from the nearby shore in a boat pointed east with a paddle, it wouldn’t take you long to splash over the state line into North Carolina.

Painted mint-green, its balconies and porches overlooking a lawn draped in tree shade, the Greek Revival property was reportedly valued at $822,000. As a neighbor would later tell the Herald, the local newspaper, the owner, Steven Clayton, had modeled his impressive lakeside estate after George Washington’s own Mount Vernon.

On July 21, Steven Clayton’s body was found spilled on the floor of the house’s foyer, the Herald reported. Authorities initially believed he had died after a tumble down the stairs.

The 64-year-old Florida native was remembered at his funeral, held at the house’s backyard, as a "big personality." He put himself through Florida State University as a construction laborer then went on to start and run a successful national medical business. He coached wrestling and served on the board of his community newspaper. He enjoyed world travel, music, wine, cigars, and his two Italian greyhounds, Guinness and Sadie, his obituary stated.

After the funeral, police received the autopsy results - and everything changed.

According to a statement from the York County Sheriff’s Office, his body was determined to contain a high amount of tetrahydrozoline. The chemical is the active ingredient in both over-the-counter nasal decongestant sprays and eye drops, like Visine. But swallowed in large enough doses, the chemical can be toxic. Cheap, seemingly benign, and sitting in many medicine cabinets or on CVS shelves, the products have been used in a number of high-profile poisoning cases within the last decade.

When confronted with the evidence in her husband’s death, Lana Sue Clayton allegedly admitted she had poisoned him with eye drops, authorities said.

"We don’t have a clear cut reason why she committed the crime that she did, or what kind of motive she had," Trent Faris, spokesman for the York County Sheriff’s Office, told ABC News. "She revealed that she used the which is known normally [as] eye drops, and put it in his food, and she did that without his knowledge."

Clayton has been arrested and charged with murder and unlawful malicious tampering of food. Court records do not indicate whether she has an attorney.

In eye-drop products, such as Visine, Eye-Sine and Opti-Clear, tetrahydrozoline acts as a relief for eye redness.

As Wired reported in 2013, the chemical works because the "compounds bind to receptors in the sympathetic nervous system, altering signals to the vascular system, triggering the change." There is a popular urban legend - popularized in the 2005 movie "Wedding Crashers" - that consuming Visine will lead to serious diarrhea.

But according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, consuming the chemical can cause a potentially deadly upheaval in the body. Coma, difficulty breathing, low body temperature, seizures, and weakness can all result from exposure.

Visine’s own maker warns, "Keep out of reach of children. If swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away."

The substance, however, has been used as a poison.

In 2008, a Long Island woman was sentenced to three years probation after spiking a roommate’s drink with the product. A Cleveland area man was given a five-year prison sentence in 2012 after nearly killing his father by pouring two bottles of Visine into his milk. In 2013, a Wyoming teenager was charged after pouring 20 bottles of the product in her stepmother’s tea and coffee over a four-month period. That same year, a California man was arrested after spiking his girlfriend’s drink with Visine following a fight. A Utah woman was charged with poisoning her husband over a period of several months in April 2017.

An eye drop-related murder, such as what is alleged in South Carolina, appears to be a much rarer occurrence.

In another bizarre twist, authorities also recently revealed this might have been the first time Clayton, a nurse at a VA facility in Charlotte, allegedly attempted to harm her husband.

According to the Herald, in May 2016, Lana Clayton walked into the local sheriff’s office to report she had accidentally shot her husband in the head with a crossbow that morning. Citing a police report, the newspaper reported Clayton explained she had been attempting to load the weapon when it "accidentally" fired. Steven Clayton, who was sleeping, was struck in the head.

The Herald reported investigators followed up with the husband, who claimed he was fine and that the shooting was an accident. But Lana Clayton did tell authorities her husband was mentally abusive and had "mood swings," according to the paper. She also said he never "hit her."

A year later, the crossbow shooting was officially ruled an accident.

Now, in light of Clayton’s alleged confession, authorities say they are reexamining the crossbow situation.

"We are making a comprehensive review of all events in the relationship between the defendant and the victim," local prosecutor Kevin Brackett told the Herald. "We will be taking a look at the relationship and the 2016 incident."

Following news of Clayton’s arrest, Steven Clayton’s surviving family members released a statement stating they were "shocked and mortified."

"All of our family and friends know how much he loved his wife, Lana, and how devoted he was to her," his family said in a statement, according to WSOC. "We are all still trying to process this."

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