Sunday, September 13, 2009

DEATH CAPS--Part two--by Sandy Semerad

When Rosy’s trial resumes, Lincoln calls Dr. Jason Franken to the stand.

Franken is a medical doctor, a horticulturist and expert witness. His last case involved a six-year-old boy who almost died from eating Amanita phalloides— mushrooms also known as “Death Caps,” Franken testifies.

Lincoln puts a photo of Death Caps on an easel for the jury to see. To my eyes, they look like normal mushrooms, except they have white ridges on the undersides.

“One mushroom can contain enough poison to kill an adult,” Franken says. “And cooking them doesn’t neutralize the toxins.”

Lincoln offers a zip bag filled with these mushrooms into exhibition for the jury to examine. “Would you say, Dr. Franken, that someone could easily mistake these Death Cap mushrooms with those purchased in a grocery store?”


“In your experience, have other adults made this mistake?”


“How many adults would you say have mistaken these poisonous mushrooms from eatable ones?”

“There’s really no way of accurately estimating how many deaths and accidental poisonings occur each year from eating these things. Often the symptoms mimic the flu.”

On cross examination, Sammy tries to trip up the expert witness, but Dr. Franken appears unflappable.

Sammy eventually says, “No further questions from this witness, your Honor.”

After Franken steps down, Lincoln calls Towsend Wallace, the owner of Towsend’s Garden Spot. Everybody in this county knows Towsend is the man to ask for advice on plants.

Townsend has transformed many a brown thumb into a green one with his guidance and his own brand of potting soil. More importantly, Michael Hofstadter was one of Towsend’s customers.

Lincoln asks Towsend about Hofstadter’s love of gardening.

“Michael used to say, ‘Getting my hands in dirt is therapy,’” Towsend testifies.

“Did Rosemary Hofstadter share her husband’s gift of gardening?”

“No, Rosy never seemed interested. Michael used to joke that she didn’t know a tomato plant from a corn stalk.”

Lincoln smiles as if he couldn’t be happier with the answer; then turns Townsend over to Sammy who asks only one question.

“With your vast knowledge of plants, wouldn’t you agree most intelligent adults would be afraid to eat a wild mushroom from their yard?”

“I eat wild mushrooms all the time,” Towsend says. “But I know the difference between one that is good for me and one that might kill me.”

After that answer, Towsend steps down and Lincoln calls Rosy’s daughter Candy to the stand.
Candy was supposed to arrive earlier today, but she was in the middle of her college finals.

“Thank God I made it,” she whispers to me on her way to being sworn in. Candy is wearing a simple black dress. Her face is scrubbed free of makeup. She could be Rosy’s twin, but today she looks more fragile than her mother, if that’s possible.

Candy’s whole body trembles as she sits in the witness chair. I’m thinking the jury will feel sympathetic toward her because of her nervousness, although I can't bear to hear her voice quiver.

So I zone out and daydream about the day I first met Rosy. That day, I’d stopped in Bob’s Cleaners and Repair Shop.

Rosy rushed in asking Bob to repair her broken shoe. The heel “popped off,” she said, and handed bob both pieces of her broken shoe that looked like a three-inch Cinderella glass slipper.

“I think I might be able to screw it,” Bob said.

“You want to screw my shoe?” Rosy laughed when she realized what she’d said.

To make matters worse, Bob’s wife Gladys said, “I’m afraid you won’t be able to walk afterwards.”

I snap back to the courtroom scene when I hear Candy's sobbing. “Mother is the kindest, sweetest woman in the whole world, everyone who knows her loves her. She can’t even bring herself to kill a fly.” She turns to the jury. “Please, stop this persecution of my mother.”

The jurors seem sad to be sitting in judgment of Rosy, and I’m hoping they can see from observing Candy her mother did a great job in raising her.

I cringe when it's Sammy's turn to cross examine. “My condolences for the loss of your step father Candy," Sammy says. "I know you’ve suffered a great deal in your young life. You lost your own father to a tragic unexplained accident, didn’t you?”

Lincoln jumps up. “Objection, irrelevant in this case, your honor.”

Biggs hammers the gavel. “Sustained.”

“I’ll withdraw the question, your honor.”

After that, Sammy releases Candy and she steps down. Before she leaves, she whispers to me, "I have to hurry back and take another test."

A string of Rosy’s friends follow Candy to the witness stand. Andrea Quiller, Rosy’s next-door neighbor, who plays the piano at Saint Paul’s Episcopal, testifies about the luncheon at the Hofstadter home the day in question.

“There must have been at least fifty guests. Most everybody brought a dish or something. I remember thinking Michael didn’t look well. Rosy told me she thought he was losing weight too fast. She was worried about his health after he had that stomach surgery. Rosy said she was always very careful about what she fixed him to eat.”

On cross, Sammy asks, “Did you actually see any of the guests at the party bring in Death Cap mushrooms?”

“No, but I arrived at Rosy and Michael’s late. I brought a bean casserole. I noticed the dining table was filled with food. The kitchen counters were, too. I couldn’t tell you what was in there if my life depended on it, and I think Rosy said she couldn’t either.”

“Ms. Quiller, have you ever been to a pot luck lunch or supper where one of the guests brought in strange-looking mushrooms?”

“I’m sure I probably have if mushrooms were called for to make a dish.”

“One last question, Ms. Quiller, did Rosemary Hofstadter tell you that her husband, Michael Hofstadter abused her and that she was miserable in that relationship?”

Andrea bites her bottom lip and sits very still.

“Ms. Quiller, do I need to repeat the question?”

“No, it’s just that what you’ve asked me is...” She hesitates and glances at Rosy as if seeking permission.

Rosy smiles at her.

Andrea continues. “I suppose I don’t have a choice. I’ve sworn to tell the truth.” Andrea inhales and exhales a long breath. “Rosy once said Michael slapped her when he was drunk, but I think she set him straight after that.”

“What do you mean by ‘set him straight’?”

Andrea bites her lip again and turned toward the jury. “Rosy said she threatened to leave Michael if he ever hit her a second time.”

“Was Rosemary Hofstadter unhappy in her marriage?”

“No more than any of us.”

The courtroom erupts with laughter.

Biggs hammers the gavel. “Silence.”

Andrea blushes. Andrea is known for her honesty and to hear her testimony on behalf of Rosy is powerful.

After Andrea testifies, I'm thinking there’s no reason for Lincoln to call Rosy to the stand, but he does.

Seeing Rosy put her trembling hand on that Bible and walk up to the hot seat makes my heart hammer faster than a woodpecker in a hurry.

Tears stream down her lovely face as she clutches the oak banister in front of the witness chair.

Lincoln puts his hands over hers in a touching display of compassion. “Rosemary, did you mean to kill your husband Michael Hofstadter by feeding him poisonous mushrooms?”

“No, no, no.” Rosy swipes her tears with the backs of her hands. “I almost can’t live with myself knowing I might have cooked something for him that could have….” Rosy’s entire body convulses in sobs.

Lincoln hands her a box of Kleenex and says, “Do you need to take a break, Rosemary.”
Rosy shakes her head, no.

Lincoln continues. “Rosemary, I know this is difficult, but I need to ask you how you came to prepare the beef Stroganoff with those mushrooms that the prosecution alleges killed your husband.”

“Beef Stroganoff is, was, one of Michael’s favorite dishes. He’d been craving it. He actually stopped and picked up the sirloin the day before. I had not fixed Beef Stroganoff for him in, oh, I can’t remember when. It had been a long time. I had to refer to an old cookbook and check to see if I had all of the ingredients. I didn’t know if I had mushrooms or not, and then I happened to see them on the counter in a plastic grocery bag.”

“What time was this?”

“About six-thirty, seven.”

“Did the mushrooms look strange to you?”


“Did you think it was strange that the mushrooms were on the counter rather than in the fridge?”

“No, I don’t remember thinking it was strange. I probably thought one of the guests brought them or maybe Michael had picked the mushrooms from his garden. He was always picking vegetables and bringing them in.”

“Tell us what happened after you fixed the Stroganoff.”

Rosy covers her mouth with her hands and looks down at the floor as if gathering her thoughts. “Michael had gone up to his study to catch up on some work, a documentary he’d been researching for some time. He was very excited about it. I didn’t want to disturb him by calling him downstairs to eat. So, I took him a plate.”

“Did you sit with your husband while he ate?”

“A short while. I don’t eat meat, but we did have a glass of merlot together. Afterwards, I went downstairs to clean up the mess from the luncheon that day.”

“Did your husband complain about being sick after he ate the stroganoff?”

“Around eleven, I think it was, I went upstairs. I had a horrible headache. I called out to Michael. I heard him flush the commode in the bathroom next to the study. The bathroom door was closed. He was in there for what seemed like a long while. I knocked and told him I was going to bed, and asked him if he was okay. He said, ‘I don’t feel so hot. I think I’ve got a bug.’ I asked him if he wanted me to call the doctor. He said no. I asked him if I could get him anything and he said, he’d be fine, not to worry.”

Roxy breaks into sobs again and Lincoln waits for Rosy to regain her composure before asking, “And what did you do next?”

“I took two Excedrin PM as I sometimes do when I have a headache and can’t sleep. I didn’t wake up until seven the next morning.”

“Where was your husband when you woke up?”

“I noticed he wasn’t in bed with me. My first thought was Michael had fallen asleep in his lounger in the study. He often did that when he was home and involved with a project.” Rosy starts sobbing again. “But he wasn’t in his lounger. He was on the bathroom floor. His body felt like stone, but I didn’t want to admit he was dead so I called 911." Rosy’s body convulses in another round of sobs.

I’m sure Sammy isn’t looking forward to questioning Rosy. Every member of the jury looks at her with sympathy. Faye Nell Krause appears to be crying and wiping her tears.

I can barely hear Sammy as he whispers his first question to Rosy. “Isn’t it true, Rosemary, that you were angry with you husband, Michael Hofstadter, because he asked you for a divorce after you were forced to put up with his unacceptable behavior?”

Rosy's blue eyes, swollen from crying, widen. “Michael never asked me for a divorce.”

“Do you expect this court to believe that you did not know or suspect your husband was having an affair?”

Rosy wipes her eyes. “I wanted to believe he was true to me, and I suppose I believed what I wanted to believe.”

“What about those strange looking mushrooms? Do you expect this court to believe that an intelligent woman, such as yourself, would not know, or at least suspect, those Death Caps were poisonous and profoundly lethal to someone like your husband who'd had stomach surgery?”

“If I had known I never would have given them to Michael or to anyone.” Rosy’s body shakes with sobs. I want to embrace her now and carry her away.

Sammy finally shuts up, and at that point I'm too nervous to sit there and listen while Lincoln and Sammy give their summations.

Instead, I to outside, away from the media frenzy. I'm shaking and craving a cigarette.

I haven’t smoked in five years, but I break down and bum one from a lady asking for directions to traffic court.

To be continued...


  1. Love love love it...could the daughter have placed the mushrooms on the table? Was she at the party?

  2. This is a great story. I can't wait to see who's responsible for putting the Death Cap mushrooms in the dish that killed Rosy's husband.

  3. I hope to post the next installment to DEATH CAPS soon.


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