The Afrin Affair
Was Dr. John Linner a mad scientist bent on murder or a victim of academic skullduggery?
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That Monday in early April, the humidity swept over the forests north of Houston like a soggy blanket. The eminent cell biologist Dr. Barry Van Winkle was not pleased. Humidity always gave him a stuffy nose, and he had no time this morning for such matters. There was an important paper to finish for the Journal of Histochemistry and Cytochemistry and an experiment to perform involving a heart-cell membrane. Van Winkle was an ambitious, impatient man. The advancement of modern medicine depended on the research of biologists such as he. As soon as he parked his car, he headed straight for his office, where he kept a bottle of Afrin nasal spray.
Van Winkle worked in a small one-story building called the Cryobiology Research Center 27 miles from downtown Houston. Established by the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the cryobiology center was tucked away in a thickly wooded, little-known tract of land known as Research Forest. Home to a cluster of small biotechnology companies and obscure laboratories, Research Forest is a quiet, mysterious place where, under shadowless fluorescent lighting in windowless labs, scientists carry on their inquiries uninterrupted. “We never have any idea what they do there,” said a nearby resident. “Every time we see something strange in the back yard, like a squirrel without a tail, we say, ‘Uh oh, here comes another experiment from Research Forest.’”
It was there that Barry Van Winkle worked tirelessly toward a breakthrough in cell biology. He quickly said hello to the center’s secretary, Lillie, walked to his office, grabbed his Afrin, put it to his nostril, and squeezed.
From down the hall, Lillie would later tell the police, she heard a sharp cry and then saw Van Winkle rush to the bathroom. He had apparently snorted something up his nose that felt, he said, like battery acid. There was an explosive, burning sensation and a sharp, pungent smell.
After he washed out his nose, the scientist quickly performed a pH test on the Afrin. The previous week, Van Winkle had used that very bottle without incident. But the test showed the spray was extremely acidic. Van Winkle looked at his secretary. Neither of them spoke. “I don’t think,” he told me later, “that Lillie or I wanted to admit to ourselves what we were thinking.”
And thus began a curious tale of crime and mystery, one that not only would affect the lives of a small group of distinguished scientists but also would cast an unsparing light on modern science itself—how it works, how it can fail, how it is affected as much by laboratory rivalries and academic infighting as it is by the pursuit of knowledge. The Afrin affair had all the elements of the classic whodunit. But it also would turn out to be much more: a cautionary tale about the high-stakes world of research and the way scientists relentlessly grapple with the unknown.
That day, an anxious Van Winkle took the Afrin bottle to the main UT Health Science Center campus near downtown Houston and gave it to the university police, asking that the ingredients undergo toxicology tests. The results, he was told, would not come back for several days.
Claiming that he was under deadline pressure to finish his article, Van Winkle returned to his office the next day. He picked up the phone to make a call—and immediately dropped it. He had felt something sticky smeared on the receiver. It had the same pungent odor that had emanated from the Afrin bottle. “My God,” said Lillie, when she came into his office, “it’s the same stuff.”
Was this a prank? Or was someone stalking the scientist? A few days later, Van Winkle started to open the door to his office. With a muffled cry, he pulled his hand away. Lillie came running. There, on the doorknob, was a fresh coat of the same substance.
The UT Health Science Center police, who have jurisdiction to investigate crimes committed on university property, told Van Winkle that there was nothing yet to investigate. But he decided to do some investigating himself. He came across a canvas bag he said he had never seen before. Furtively, he peered inside, receiving what he would call “the shock of my life.”
He found books with such titles as The Poisoner’s Handbook, Hit Man, and Silent Death—underground publications that the police would later tell him were written to teach people how to kill.
Digging deeper into the bag, Van Winkle spied two hazard sheets from the Sigma Chemical Company in St. Louis, Missouri, for the chemicals d9-isofluorophosphate (DFP) and beta propiolactone. Van Winkle knew about DFP: It was a highly toxic chemical used in experiments to stop a certain enzyme in a cell from attacking protein. But what was beta propiolactone? Van Winkle had never heard of it.
He opened the refrigerator that contained all the lab’s chemicals. There, amidst hundreds of vials and containers, he saw an opened bottle of beta propiolactone and an unopened bottle of DFP. Then, he said, he saw two other tightly sealed, unopened bottles. They held a chemical called tetrodotoxin—one of the most toxic compounds on the planet. A human who ingests less than a milligram of tetrodotoxin—about the size of a grain of pepper—will die within thirty minutes. Van Winkle said he was terrified. Like DFP, tetrodotoxin has legitimate research uses “but not in this lab,” Van Winkle told me. “That, I admit, scared the shit out of me.”
With a syringe he withdrew a sample from the opened container of beta propiolactone and took it to UT police headquarters, where he told officers that he suspected it was the substance that he had been put in the Afrin bottle. More than a week later the lab tests came back. Indeed, the acid in his Afrin was beta propiolactone, a chemical normally used in controlled experiments to sterilize bacteria. The chemical came with a warning: It had been found to cause cancer in animals, and humans were warned not to ingest it or let it touch the skin.
Barry Van Winkle had done both. For him, the conclusion was inescapable. At the time, only three people were working at the cryobiology center—Van Winkle, Lillie, and the executive director, Dr. John Linner, a brilliant man who had achieved worldwide fame for inventing a machine that, for the first time, allowed some human cells to be studied in minute detail. Linner had been absent the day Van Winkle took his fateful sniff, which increased Van Winkle’s suspicions. He told the police and school administrators that he was being poisoned. And the man doing it, he said, was none other than John Linner.
If ever two scientists were polar opposites, it was Barry Van Winkle and John Linner. Both were 46 years old, both majored in zoology in college, and both liked to tinker with electron microscopes, but there the resemblances ended. Van Winkle looked more like a vice president of a corporation than a top research scientist. He was a trim, handsome man with a pleasant, extroverted manner, piercing greenish-gray eyes, and a newscasterlike baritone voice. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, oxford shirts, khakis, and penny loafers. He strode briskly about his laboratory, exuding a sheen of great confidence.
John Linner was known as much for his magnificently weird ways as for his science. A huge man—six feet five inches tall and three hundred pounds—Linner’s usual uniform consisted of Birkenstock sandals, golf shirts, shorts, and a baseball cap. He kept a supply of Gummy Bears at his office. During lunch breaks he would sometimes play with remote-controlled toy race cars in the parking lot. He collected kites. Because of his victories in local chili cook-offs, he earned the nickname Dr. Chili around the Health Science Center. Linner liked to bring his sheepdog to the lab with him. While he worked, his dog poked around the lab equipment.
The most telling difference between Linner and Van Winkle, however, was the way they engaged in the brutal game of academic science. Science is not the gentleman’s profession some imagine it to be, a stately world where scholars in white lab coats spend years on a project, working patiently until—Eureka!—they make a breakthrough. Universities constantly push their scientists to do more research and publish more papers in order to land the dwindling number of federal government’s scientific research grants. An institution like the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston—one of the largest graduate health institutions in the country, with six schools and a $256 million annual budget—depends mostly on government grants to fund its scientists’ research. If a scientist wants to prove himself there, he has to prove he can come up with the kind of glamorous research projects that will bring in the money.
Barry van Winkle was a savvy player of the science game. The author of nearly fifty papers, he established himself early in the expanding field of heart-cell research. He devised new techniques for studying the heart membrane. He was the first person to purify a critical protein from a heart cell. No one needed to tell the Health Science Center administrators what a coup it would be to get Van Winkle on their staff. Two years ago, they lured him away from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, promising him state-of-the-art facilities and an ideal working environment at the cryobiology center.
Van Winkle was also a prized recruit because of his spouse. Dr. Jeanie McMillin, a charming Southerner, is a world-renowned researcher in biochemistry—more famous, in fact, than her husband. When Van Winkle accepted the position at the cryobiology center, McMillin was also quickly hired as a full professor and granted tenure shortly after she came to the Health Science Center’s medical school. It was a perfect two-for-one deal; together they made an enviable power couple in science.
John Linner, on the other hand, was a master bumbler of the science game. Disheveled and erratic, he did not understand—or simply chose to ignore—the rules that govern academic science. He rarely wrote papers. He did not apply for grants. He would not even do the research he had been hired to do. Yet, almost in spite of himself, Linner came up with an invention that could potentially revolutionize biological research and became, in the process, a darling of the Health Science Center.
Perhaps it was inevitable that he would not last forever, that eventually the rules would catch up with Linner and Barry Van Winkle would begin to take his place. So the two were destined to clash. But no one could have predicted it would lead to a charge of attempted murder.
John Linner gave me a quick, limp handshake, a surprise coming from a man so big, and then crumpled his bulk into a chair in his lawyer’s office. He was in sandals, shorts, and a golf shirt. His face was pale, the color of navy beans. His light gray hair was only partly combed, and his eyes, beneath enormous, bushy eyebrows, darted left, then right, as if he was cautious of human contact.
“It’s a mystery to me,” he said, speaking as if mildly irked, as if the poisoning of Van Winkle was an equation that had so far exceeded his grasp. “I’ve tried to think of some way that it could have happened…” and his voice trailed off.
Indeed, to those who knew Linner, a man who use to leave chocolate truffles on co-workers’ desks and turn on a television set in his garage at night so his dog wouldn’t get lonely, his arrest last April for attempted murder was absurd. Over and over his friends and associates used one of his three phrases to describe him. “An eccentric, but a harmless eccentric.” “A teddy bear.” Or “a gentle giant.” One scientist called him, fondly, “a sort of Baby Huey, always a little naïve.”
If people were protective of Linner, it was because there was something of the absent-minded professor in him. He carried with him a spiral notebook full of utterly unintelligible scribblings. At times during our talk he couldn’t recall names of close friends or important dates; when I asked him in what year he invented his famous biological machine, he couldn’t remember. It was often comically impossible for him to talk in nonscientific language. When I asked him, for example to tell me about his postdoctoral project, he said, “I worked on neuropeptides—how they moved from the hypothalamus down to the pituitary.”
“Which means what?” I asked.
“I was trying to do immunocytochemical localization with vasopressin or oxytocin.”
One thing he was clear about was his innocence. Linner steadfastly maintained that he liked Barry Van Winkle and had no desire to see him dead or afflicted with cancer. Linner even suggested he was framed, either by Van Winkle himself or someone else at the research center.
Frankly, there are a lot of baffling questions in the case of the tainted Afrin. Why, if Linner wanted to kill Van Winkle, would he have used beta propiolactone? Chemical experts have confirmed that beta propiolactone, when mixed with water—and water makes up more than 90 percent of what’s inside an Afrin bottle—quickly deteriorates, loses its toxicity, and turns into acid. Linner could have used any one of dozens of highly toxic chemicals around the lab; beta propiolactone was probably the one chemical in the lab guaranteed not to kill Van Winkle.
Considering that Van Winkle himself admitted he and Linner never showed hostility toward one another, why was Van Winkle suspicious of him? Why, too, if Van Winkle thought Linner was out to kill him, did he keep coming back to the office for nearly two weeks? Was it really because he was so obsessed with his work?
Soon after Linner’s arrest, gossip started swirling at the Health Science Center. One scientist told me Linner was “too much of a buffoon to have come up with some plan to knock somebody off.” Another told me Van Winkle was incapable of framing anyone. “Barry’s so goddam honest he wouldn’t steal a Lifesaver,” said the scientist. Maybe, added another, Linner wanted to irritate Van Winkle by tainting his nasal spray, the kind of sick joke only a scientist might think funny.
No one would publicly suggest another more ominous theory. But after Linner’s arrest, some colleagues who had known him a long time took another look at the bemused, rotund character who they thought they knew so well. Quietly they began to ask themselves if Dr. Linner might be a little like Dr. Jekyll.
Growing up in Minnesota (his father was a physician, his mother a beautician), Linner was one of those kids who was building telegraph machines in grade school. By the time he reached Mankato State University in Minnesota, he was the quintessential lab rat. Science was his refuge. “He was a somewhat self-conscious individual,” recalled his faculty adviser from those day, Dr. William McEnery. “He was, I think, slightly ill at ease around people.”
After receiving his Ph.D. in cell biology from Iowa State University, Linner arrived at the University of Texas Health Science Center. This was in 1978, a time when Houston was rich in oil money and there were plenty of research grants to pass around. It was a perfect place for a young, untested scientist to make his start. Linner was offered a position as a postdoctoral fellow in the department of neurobiology and anatomy.
Scientists can be a strange bunch, but there was no question that Linner was the strangest of them all. He referred to his girlfriend as “hormone therapy” and spent hours in the laboratory perfecting his chili recipes; to him, making chili was itself a science. He kept his chili peppers frozen in an ultra-low-temperature freezer at his lab so they wouldn’t oxidize. He consulted with taste physiologists at the university. Soon he was more famous around the university for his chili than for his research.
Though his peers chuckled at Linner’s odd charm, he made some of them uneasy. He was known, for instance, to carry a pistol. Then there was also his motto, “Don’t get mad, get even.” By way of example, Linner jokingly told co-workers about the time he sprinkled radioisotopes in his college roommate’s underwear. Even though few took him seriously, one scientist was so unnerved that he took to sweeping his office with a Geiger counter to check for the presence of radioisotopes (prolonged exposure to such material, of course, could cause cancer).
Dr. Joe Wood, who was then the chairman of the neurobiology and anatomy department, ordered Linner to remove the gun from the premises. But he also had great faith in the man’s abilities. In science, Wood knew, it was often the unconventional man who made the unconventional discovery. Wood was so impressed with Linner’s dedication to his research—Linner would regularly spend the entire night in his lab—that he began working to get him tenured. Linner was assigned to give lectures in gross anatomy to first-year medical students. To help him—Linner sometimes go so side-tracked that he forgot what he was supposed to teach—Wood had Linner’s lectures videotaped so he could learn from his mistakes.
But in 1982 Linner simply abandoned his research in neurobiology and asked to be relieved of his lecture duties so he could concentrate on building a machine. At that time, a slice of human tissue could not survive the intense radiation beams of an electron microscope (a powerful machine that can magnify an object half a million times larger than a conventional microscope) unless it was first submerged in a series of highly toxic chemical fluids. The fluids would immediately stop all the activity in the cell and then fix the cell in a preserved state. But the chemicals would inevitably alter the cell’s structure and content, so scientists could never be sure that they were seeing an accurate picture of the inside of a cell.
To avoid the chemical damage, some biologists worked with low-temperature machines that instantly froze a cell (thus the term “cryobiology,” which is the study of any life form at low temperatures). But freezing caused a whole new set of problems. When the water molecules inside the cell froze, the ice they formed expanded, tearing the cell apart.
Linner had a brainstorm. He wanted to freeze cells instantly (to 196 degrees below Celsius) so that the water molecules became fixed and wouldn’t have time to form ice. Then, Linner wanted to put those cells in a machine that could vacuum out all the water molecules while the cells slowly warmed to room temperature. If everything worked, the cells under an electron microscope would look just right.
Most fellow scientists thought Linner was out of his mind. He was a biologist. He had little training in physics and none in engineering. Now he wanted to create a machine that would use space-age vacuum technology. How could he pull off such a stunt?
But Joe Wood gave him the green light. Another way to play the academic science game is to develop a hot young scientist. If he then comes up with a discovery that results in a major paper, the senior supervising scientist can often add his name as a co-author, gleaning some credit for himself. Wood, however, did given Linner one warning. Linner would have to keep up his research on his neurobiology projects, publish papers, and apply for government grants.
Linner agreed to the terms—but then, for all practical purposes, ignored them. “I just knew this machine was what I needed to get my other research done,” Linner said with a shrug, “so I decided to build it.” He pored over engineering journals and read NASA reports. He turned his medical school laboratory into what one scientist called a salvage yard, filled with tools and strips of metal. He even scavenged the school’s trash at night, looking for spare parts. When the president of a Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, manufacturing company saw a television piece about Linner’s chili-cooking ability and asked for the recipe, Linner traded it for a turbo pump that he needed. Day and night, Linner toiled in his lab—he worked all Christmas Eve and the following Christmas Day. Linner spent so much time grinding down metal parts to fit the machine that a thick layer of dust covered the floor. He left chemicals and solvents scattered over the tables.
“People from my department,” recalled Joe Wood, “would come up to me and ask, ‘What are you going to do about this man?’ They were scared he was going to blow up the lab. I even had the environmental safety officer from the university come by to tell me he was going to have to condemn the place. But it was hard to know what to do about him because we had a strong feeling the guy was onto something.”
Within a year Linner had made a crude prototype, held together in part by rubber bands. According to one fellow professor, it looked like “a huge barbecue grill.” Wires and tubes went everywhere; a K mart hair dryer was attached to the machine to dry one of the parts. When Linner formally presented what he called his molecular distillation dryer, his colleagues were less than impressed. “A lot of those scientists went back to their offices and spread the word that this was a bunch of crap,” recalled a Health Science Center administrator. “They saw John as a flake, as a guy with a dog in his lab, and they just weren’t going to have anything to do with him.”
By 1984, Wood, saying he had protected Linner as long as he could, had given him notice. Linner had totally shirked his responsibilities at the medical school for the single-minded development of his invention. Perhaps what he did not realize was that as an inventor is not as respected in academic science as a theorizer. As valuable as a master tinkerer as Linner might be, in the university’s scheme of things he was a second-class scientist.
On the verge of a breakthrough, Linner and his invention seemed finished. But at a cocktail party, he bumped into one of the most respected scientists at the Health Science Center, Dr. Alton Steiner, an endocrinologist who in 1968 had received tremendous acclaim for developing a detection system that follows one of the signals sent in a cell. When he met Linner, Steiner’s latest research was lagging precisely because he needed to get better pictures from the electron microscope. Linner pulled a couple of slides from his pocket to show Steiner what his machine could do.
Steiner rolled the dice. He took about $200,000 from a five-year $1 million grant he had received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and diverted it to Linner. Steiner set Linner up in a basement laboratory, gave him lab assistants, and eventually teamed him up with a visiting scientist from Australia.
It was another amazing stroke of luck for Linner—and a remarkable gamble for Alton Steiner. It is the rare scientist who will spend precious grant money on projects that might not work—any step that threatens the success of the research threatens the future of the grant itself. If Linner’s machine came through, Steiner could take partial credit for changing cell research. If it didn’t, he could lose everything.
Laboring furiously, Linner did build a better prototype. He and his Australian partner, Dr. Stephen Livesey, also began assembling a new machine that would freeze cells better than previous models. They prepared a twelve-page article for the Journal of Histochemistry and Cytochemistry to announce their findings. If the paper’s title seemed obscure to outsiders—“A New Technique for the Removal of Amorphous Phase Tissue Water Without Ice Crystal Damage”—it was riveting to other scientists. John Linner had handed them a potentially powerful tool to completely reevaluate cell structure.
Linner had not only survived, but he had unknowingly placed himself on the brink of history. In 1984, while he was toiling in the basement, the UT Health Science Center administrators were meeting in their boardroom to ponder a landmark decision. Recognizing that the Texas economy would never be the same—that rich oilmen would no longer be donating millions of dollars for research—the university announced that it would embark on a controversial program called technology transfer. It would be a new kind of wildcatting: The university would license the rights to the new products invented by its own scientists and hope that the royalties would come rolling in.
Some scientists argued that the commercialization of the Health Science Center would be dangerous, leading researchers to forsake their quest for pure knowledge and look instead for ways to make money. But the Health Science Center had no choice. It needed the money. The director of research services for the Health Science Center, Bob Davis, was put in charge of the technology transfer program and ordered to find a product to sell. The first guy he came across was this oddball in the basement. John Linner would be the man to launch the Health Science Center into a new era. “I thought, ‘My God, this should be a challenge,’” Davis said.
Davis arranged a meeting between Linner and a group of venture capitalists who were trying to bring new business out to Research Forest, which was then part of a major 25,000-acre development north of Houston called the Woodlands. Conceived in 1974, the Woodlands was designed to be the perfect master-planned community, with an adjoined biotech version of Silicon Valley. The more start-up companies and university research labs Research Forest could attract, the more people would come to work and buy expensive homes in the Woodlands.
As of 1986 Research Forest had managed to attract only one biotech company and one large research facility. The Woodlands executives desperately wanted the University of Texas Health Science Center as a prestigious drawing card for other laboratories. So they made an offer. The Woodlands’ venture capital group said it would take full risk, spending the money to create a company called LifeCell that would manufacture and market Linner’s technology. The Health Science Center would receive an equity interest in the company and a percentage of the royalties. All the health Science Center had to do in return was move Linner to Research Forest and stock his laboratory.
They had a deal. In January 1987, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston’s Cryobiology Research Center was opened. Even though he had never run any scientific program in his life, the center’s new executive director was Dr. John Linner. He got 650,000 shares of LifeCell stock, and with his LifeCell consulting contract, his salary jumped from $36,000 to an estimated $95,000. He bought a Mercedes. He fell in love with a pretty realtor from the Woodlands. He made plans to build a $185,000 home. He was a Research Forest celebrity. To celebrate Linner’s arrival, some local executives invited him to a reception. He showed up in overalls.
LifeCell, built next to Linner’s laboratory, also opened with a bang. Its chief executive officer told the press that the company could reap profits of $40 million in five years. LifeCell hoped to use the machines to preserve red blood cells for storage and to preserve corneas and heart valves for transplants. The company took out a glitzy full-page ad in the international science magazine Nature, promoting itself with the headline, FROM ART…TO SCIENCE.
It was a remarkable chain of events. Incredibly, the one person who lost out was the very scientist who had championed John Linner early on. When Alton Steiner’s grant came up for renewal in late 1986, the NIH found that his work done with Linner’s machine was hopeful but inconclusive. The harsh wheels of academic science swiftly kicked into gear. Steiner lost his laboratory and his research team. Within a year he was out of medical research altogether. He now teaches courses in clinical care for the medical school. Although he had funded Linner for three years, he felt shut out by Linner and burned by the school that hopes to profit from Linner’s work.
The experience left Steiner wary of his former protégé. After Steiner complained to the administration about being shut out of the cryobiology center, he was shown a four-page memo that John Linner had written to the administration about him. In it, Linner had complained of rumors and lies and belittled the extent of Steiner’s support.
“I was chilled to the bone,” recalled Steiner. “It seemed to me that he had ways of believing in things that didn’t exist. I was the one who tried to provide him friendship, who tried to provide an environment to make him feel good. I realized that someone like Linner isn’t going to do well when he’s not protected.”
Steiner paused. He chose his next words carefully. “This gets into tricky stuff,” he finally said, “but Linner’s not normal. I think if he was pushed hard enough, he might threaten people. You don’t isolate Linner. You don’t make him feel unwanted.”
A YEAR AND A HALF AFTER the Cryobiology Research Center opened, Linner’s Australian partner, Stephen Livesey, moved to LifeCell. Livesey declined to be interviewed for this article, but as Research Services director Bob Davis said, “It didn’t take Livesey long to become frustrated with Linner. John just wouldn’t make any decisions about what needed to be worked on in the lab.”
To put it mildly, Linner was a poor administrator. He had little conception of how to spend money. Though the center was then staffed by fewer than six people, Linner ordered a twelve-foot-long conference table. When he saw that no one was using it, he piled his own papers and notes all over the table. “There was certainly an anxiety on my part that Linner was running the center,” said Davis. “Livesey would have been better. But what could we do? Linner was the inventor, the reason we were all out there.”
There was some question too about what exactly Linner was working on. Once again he was not publishing papers or applying for government research grants. “When I would tell him he had to publish some papers about the research he was doing,” said Davis, “he’d just look at me as if I was from outer space.”
In fairness, it did seem that Linner was being shunted aside at Research Forest. With Livesey taking on more technological responsibilities at LifeCell, Linner even lost touch with the machines he had invented. “If I would see him once every three months, that would be a lot,” snaps Paul Frison, LifeCell’s CEO. In truth, LifeCell just didn’t want anything to do with Linner. It was as if it had decided he had contributed all he could.
UT administrators hoped Barry Van Winkle’s arrival in the summer of 1989 would light a fire under Linner. Van Winkle had a number of grant proposals he wanted to write and projects he was ready to start. But it did not take long before Van Winkle also was complaining about Linner to Bob Davis. When I asked Van Winkle what Linner was working on at the time, he said in a disgusted tone, “Getting married and building his house. He would come to the lab but would not be involved in much at all.”
Linner insisted that he had been working on major projects—important things, some of them secret. He said he was quietly completing seven patents on a revolutionary new set of cryobiology machines, far better than his original. That was the way he had always worked, he said, on his own, inventing, not telling a soul until he was ready to unveil his latest masterwork.
The rumpled, remote Linner and the button-down van Winkle were bound to have differences. “There was a nickname for Barry in the lab,” said Linner. “We called him the Exposed Nerve. He’d be doing an experiment, and if things would go bad, he’d take his twenty-dollar forceps and throw them against the wall.”
But Van Winkle made no apologies for his hard-charging personality. He like to be in on the action, collaborating with other scientists, keeping up with the hottest research—and for him, that meant being at the medical school. Soon after he arrived, Van Winkle began lobbying administrators to move the cryobiology center there. “It was a stupid idea to have the center in Research Forest,” he told me. “Why take technology and move it thirty miles away just so you can look at pretty pine trees? To me, scientifically, it was very foolish.” Van Winkle, who did not have tenure, also wanted to improve his academic standing. Not only were most of the other researchers thirty miles away, but so was the administration, and he knew, as he puts it, “that being out of sight at an institution like this means being out of mind. And that is a very dangerous thing.”
As it had once before, the system began to turn against Linner. In the early months of 1990, Dr. William Butcher, the dean of the Health Science Center’s Graduate School of Biomedical Science, decided that Van Winkle should be in charge of the cryobiology center. Bob Davis notified Linner only that he would no longer be executive director. “When I told John that we had to make a change because no work was getting done, he was shocked—crestfallen. He came back and made some excuses and said he wasn’t the only one out there. I said, ‘Yeah, but you’re the one in charge.’ John turned quiet and sullen and he said, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’” It was the last time that Davis—who over the years had grown close to Linner, taking him on vacations and inviting him to dinner parties—would hear from him.
In the summer of 1990, before Van Winkle could take over, the administration gave the Cryobiology Research Center an even bigger surprise. It had decided to close the center by the end of August 1991. Linner’s work, they determined had run its course. Despite the fact that his molecular distillation dryer might, for the next several years, result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties for the Health Science Center, the university said it no longer wanted to maintain the $100,000 budget needed to keep the cryobiology center open and to support Linner’s current projects. Since Linner was not producing the type of research that would result in funding from such bodies as the NIH, he was gone.
But that was not the only slap in the face for Linner. Barry Van Winkle was hired by the pathology department at the health Science Center’s medical school in Houston. Linner still had not found a new job. Moreover, the university would allow Van Winkle to take all the cryobiology center’s lab equipment—originally bought for Linner—to start his own laboratory.
The gentle giant’s career lay in ruins. And if there was ever a time to want revenge, it would later be whispered around the med school, this was it. But Linner, peculiarly, displayed little emotion. He kept showing up for work, and he and Van Winkle even went together to a Joe Cocker concert at the Woodlands. “I never once saw any disagreement between them,” said Linner’s friend Frank Gibson, a LifeCell engineer. “Whenever I saw them together, John always was acting very friendly to Barry.”
People from LifeCell and the cryobiology center could remember only one instance when the low-key Linner acted out of character. His lab assistant, Donna Harrison, told investigators of one incident that happened about a month before the Afrin episode. Linner discovered that someone from the next office had changed the adjustments of his electron microscope. He angrily told her to write a memo to the offending party. She replied that the memo was his job. Suddenly, Linner pulled a pistol out of a desk drawer, held it up in the air, and said, “This is my memo!” Soon after, Harrison quit her job and opened a nail boutique. Though others dispute the extent of the gun story—a LifeCell engineer who was there that day says Harrison “blew it all out of proportion,” and Linner himself says he can’t remember the event ever happening—investigators recall her saying that she had been “scared” of Linner.
When Barry Van Winkle claimed John Linner was after him, the case was referred to two burly detectives from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department in nearby Conroe. Sergeant Tracy Peterson and Detective David Moore are nothing like research scientists. Both are former high school football players in their early thirties, easygoing guys who greet a visitor with line like “Hey, you old scumbag, what are you up to?”
The case, based entirely on circumstantial evidence, didn’t look promising. It was going to be difficult for a prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Linner had taken any steps at all to carry out a crime. The fact that Linner had ordered beta propiolactone, the chemical that found its way into Van Winkle’s nasal spray, did not make him a criminal.
Nor was the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department cut out for major scientific investigations. At the time Moore was assigned to the Linner case, he was trying to hunt down a local crime ring that was said to be stealing diesel fuel from trucks. Because the two detectives could barely spell the names of the chemicals in Linner’s lab, let alone pronounce them, they took to calling them Chemical Number One, Chemical Number Two, and so on.
On a whim, Peterson called the local FBI agent, Jerry Price, to see what he might know about the chemicals Van Winkle had found. Price said he would do some checking. That afternoon he called back, his voice tense. He said the FBI was sending down two special agents, both Ph.D.’s, from its Scientific Analysis Unit in Washington, D.C. Price asked Peterson to get a search warrant for the cryobiology center and for Linner’s home.
The FBI’s response made Peterson and Moore wonder whether John Linner could be one of those mad scientists they had seen in the movies. “The FBI done scared me bad about those toxins, real bad,” recalled Peterson in his booming, auctioneerlike voice. “The FBI told us those chemicals Linner had were the poisons that assassins use, like the damn KGB. I thought, ‘Holy shit, I don’t want to go into his lab.’”
In the small hours of April 30, FBI agents, Montgomery County sheriff’s officers, and Barry Van Winkle descended upon Research Forest and entered the offices of the cryobiology center. The officers found the chemicals Van Winkle had told them about. They also found The Handbook of Toxinology, which Linner had checked out of the UT Health Science Center library.
When the agents and deputies arrived at Linner’s home at two-thirty in the morning, the lights were still on. Linner, a night owl, was in a white T-shirt and white shorts, watching television. As they trooped inside—Linner had a tastefully designed home with Salvador Dali prints on the wall—they saw a machine gun lying on the kitchen floor. Linner told them to remain calm; it was only a squirt gun that he used to shoot at his cats when they jumped on the kitchen counter.
The raid took a darker turn when the officers found two U.S. Marine manuals on chemical warfare hidden in a back closet. The manuals described such things as chocking agents, hydrogen cyanide, and mustard gas. Then, in Linner’s downstairs office, the investigators found a photocopied chapter from a book describing some of the country’s most infamous murderers; this particular chapter concerned Herman Webster Mudgett, a mass murderer from the nineteenth century who had lured women to his home, used chloroform to knock them out, carried them down to his basement, and dismembered them.
As the search continued, one FBI agent, looking through Linner’s briefcase, pulled out a sheet of paper. On it, in Linner’s scrawly handwriting, was some kind of strange recipe that included such items as narrow-mouth quart-size jars, greasy beef, and five heaping tablespoons of soil. It was, the flabbergasted agent realized, a crude formula for botulinum, the bacteria that produces the toxin that causes botulism. If Linner had needed botulinum for some kind of research project, he could have ordered it from a chemical company. Why did he need to grow his own?
Linner was arrested and taken to the Montgomery County jail, where Detective Moore tried to interview him. “It was the worst feeling I ever had,” says Moore. “I’d ask Linner a question about why he needed tetrodotoxin and he’d talk for thirty minutes and I’d just sit there. I couldn’t come back and tell him he was a liar because I couldn’t even spell the name of the damn chemical.”
When the newspaper stories emerged that week (DEADLY NASAL SPRAY USED IN LABORATORY DEATH PLOT, read a Houston Post headline), Linner’s neighbors were indignant. Just because he was eccentric, they argued, that didn’t make him crazy. Linner’s lawyer, Robert Bennett, said Linner had “fallen prey to a hysteria that he is dangerous, simply because he knows more than other people about chemistry.”
That, in fact, may be true. John Linner said he had an explanation for all those how-to-kill books and chemicals and the botulinum formula—and he did. At a gun show, he said, he had traded some gun parts for $75 and a canvas bad of books. He said books like The Poisoner’s Handbook and Silent Death were in there, but he never read them. When I asked about how Van Winkle found the hazard sheets for the toxic chemicals in the bag, he said Van Winkle was lying. “They were never in there,” said Linner.
Linner said the biography of the mass murderer found in his home was photocopied because the man happened to be an ancestor of his wife, Linda, who was curious about him. The chemical warfare manuals belonged to her son from a previous marriage, a Marine who served in Desert Storm with a chemical warfare unit. Both Linda Linner and a Marine spokesperson confirm Linner’s accounts.
The botulinum formula in his briefacase? He says that was part of a scientific project he was doing at home. He wanted to know how plants take in water and other nutrients from the soil, and since botulinum exists in the soil, he wanted to make some to see its effect. He copied the formula, he says, from a book he read at the Health Science Center library.
The two toxins in his lab, tetrodotoxin and DFP? He says he had ordered them for a series of experiments on certain proteins in cells. When the police asked for lab reports involving the chemicals, he told them he hadn’t yet begun the experiments. (A senior scientist from the medical school’s toxicology department said Linner’s explanation “sounds perfectly reasonable.”) And as for the beta propiolactone, Linner says he was just beginning to use it in experiments, a fact he had pointed out earlier to investigators.
Though Linner had plenty to reasons to dislike Van Winkle—he had, after all, benefited from the dismantling of Linner’s Research Forrest kingdom—on closer investigation, much of the case against Linner appears as weak as the UT Health Science Center police pronounced it last spring. Montgomery County officers Peterson and Moore theorized that Linner wanted Van Winkle dead so he would have a chance at that job in the pathology department at the medical school. The truth was that the university never considered offering Linner the job, nor did he apply for it. Linner, after all, called the main campus of the Health Science Center “the swill of nastiness.” He said he was already looking for work on the East or West coasts.
At the same time, Linner and his attorney’s theory that Van Winkle was trying to frame Linner was also full of holes. Not even lawyer Bennett could suggest a motive for why Van Winkle would want to frame Linner. “Maybe Barry was driven by psychoses, if anything,” Linner suggested. In fact, Van Winkle’s seemingly irrational persistence in pressuring the investigation—taking the Afrin bottle to the UT police, enlisting Montgomery County officers when the Health Science Center police refused to press charges—had a rational explanation. Last year, his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Watching her suffering through the mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation had left profound scars. “To think that someone was coming after me with a carcinogen,” Van Winkle said, “well, that just goes beyond messing around with someone. I wanted to know who was doing that to me.”
In turn, Linner also casts aspersions on a former co-worker. When I asked why that person might possibly want to murder someone, Linner replied, “People, I guess, they amaze you with their resourcefulness when they’re driven by a deep-seated hatred.” That ironically, could be the very description that some might apply to John Linner.
As of mid-July, the Montgomery County district attorney had not taken the case to the grand jury for an indictment against Linner. As a result, there just seemed to be a lot of finger-pointing over who had spiked the Afrin. Linner himself already appeared to be engrossed in other subjects, spending much of his time in Houston at the Health Science Center library, working on his own research projects that might someday again make him famous.
One afternoon I happened to see his massive figure crossing a courtyard next to the UT medical school. He was in his shorts and sandals and looked lost in thought. Given his distracted manner, it had always been difficult for me to tell whether he even regretted the events that had taken place. Now I also wondered if the ultimate question about him would go unanswered. We may never know whether Linner is a killer or a misguided eccentric who lost his way in the unforgiving world of academic science. Whatever the case, he still seemed to want a place in the very world that had so harshly rejected him.
Notebook in hand, his head down, he walked musingly past the med school building where Barry Van Winkle was setting up his new lab. John Linner turned toward the library. And without once looking up, he lumbered up the library steps and disappeared inside, the door closing slowly behind him.