Over a three-day period in 2018, a woman in South Carolina secretly added enough eye drops to her husband’s water for the active ingredient in the medicine to kill him, according to court filings and officials.
On Thursday, the woman, Lana Sue Clayton, 53, a former Veterans Affairs nurse, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for killing her husband, Stephen D. Clayton, 64, at their home in Clover, S.C., the documents show. She admitted to “administering the poison to him” from July 19 through July 21, 2018, an arrest warrant says.
“What a tangled web we weave,” Judge Paul M. Burch said at the Sixteenth Judicial Circuit Court hearing in York, S.C., on Thursday, according to video from WCNC. “Ms. Clayton, you sure have tangled this one up,” he said. “You let him suffer for three days.”
“I did impulsively put the Visine in Steven’s drink, but I just did it to make him uncomfortable,” Ms. Clayton said in court, referring to a common eye drop, according to The Associated Press. “I never thought it would kill him.”
Ms. Clayton had originally been charged with murder after her arrest in August 2018, the arrest warrant said. She pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and was also sentenced to a tampering charge with a 20-year concurrent sentence, the filings show.
Her lawyers could not be reached for comment on Friday.
At the center of the case is the use of the chemical tetrahydrozoline, which is an active ingredient in eye drops that can be purchased without a prescription.
It is commonly found in drops that are intended to relive irritation and “get the red out.” The products are safe when used as directed, by narrowing blood vessels, the Food and Drug Administration says. But the agency has warned that if ingested, the chemical, and others like it that narrow blood vessels, “may cause serious and life-threatening adverse events.”
The Clayton case is the latest involving fatal amounts of ingested tetrahydrozoline. It also figures in murder charges against Joshua Lee Hunsucker, a North Carolina paramedic accused of killing his wife, Stacy Hunsucker, 32, in 2018, allegedly for life insurance money, the state Department of Insurance said when announcing his arrest last month.
On Friday, Barry Smith, spokesman for the department, said that Ms. Hunsucker was an organ donor and that, although she died in 2018, samples of her blood were tested after the case was referred to the department. The sample showed a “high amount” of chemical from the eye drops.
The department’s criminal investigations unit had received a complaint from a family member because of the insurance claim and “that is why we investigated it,” he said.A lawyer for Mr. Hunsucker, David Teddy, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment on Friday.
In the South Carolina case, the traces of tetrahydrozoline were found in Mr. Clayton’s body during the autopsy, the warrant said. “It was said in court that she admitted to putting eye drops in his water,” Leslie Robinson, assistant solicitor for York County, said in an interview on Friday.
Last month the American Academy of Ophthalmology used the Clayton case to point out the potential dangers in the misuse of the blood vessel constrictors. In an online newsletter, titled “Red-Eye Drops: Poisonous to Drink, Safe If Used Correctly,” it said that intentionally or accidentally drinking eye drops could lead to toxic blood levels.
When consumed orally, tetrahydrozoline passes quickly through the gastrointestinal tract, rapidly reaching the blood and the central nervous system, the article said. Symptoms of an overdose include drowsiness, slow breathing or absence of breathing, slow heartbeat, hypothermia and possibly even coma, it said.
Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Visine, said in a statement on Friday: “Using tetrahydrozoline (active ingredient in Visine) on the surface of the eye has been demonstrated to be safe for self-use for over 50 years. Visine is clearly labeled for external use only and should never be swallowed.”
According to figures provided in an email by the American Association of Poison Control Centers, there were no reported deaths from tetrahydrozoline from 2016 through 2019.