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Indelible Evidence

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Kay Sybers took a mild sedative before bed in the early hours of May 30, 1991, but according to her husband, Dr. William Sybers, still had trouble sleeping. At least twice before dawn she woke up, he said later, both times complaining of chest pains. Worried that his 52-year-old wife might be seriously ill, Sybers, then the medical examiner for six counties in Florida’s panhandle, said he twice tried to draw a blood sample but failed to find a vein. “I botched it,” he told investigators.

In fact, to a Pensacola, Fla., jury last month, the pathologist’s needlework seemed deadly efficient. For in the hours after Sybers had struggled to draw Kay’s blood, she died. Her death prompted a fitful, decade-long investigation that concluded, on March 23, with Sybers’s conviction of murdering his wife of 30 years by injecting her with a lethal dose of the neuromuscular blocking agent succinylcholine. “He nearly committed the perfect crime,” says Special Prosecutor Harry L. Shorstein, 60, who pursued the case for five years.

Apparently Sybers, now 68, who was having an affair at the time with a woman he has since married, made a crucial mistake. Using his power as medical examiner—and, he claimed, according to his wife’s wishes—he allowed her body to be taken to a funeral home without ordering an autopsy. Colleagues persuaded him to reconsider later that day, but by then Kay had been embalmed, which instead of erasing evidence of poison actually helped preserve it. It took nine years to develop the appropriate tests, but scientists at the FBI and at a private lab determined the true cause of her death: a fatal injection of succinvlcholine.

Jurors took four hours to find Sybers guilty. His motives, according to Shorstein: love for his paramour and avoiding a nasty divorce in which he stood to lose half of the couple’s $6 million in assets. Yet except for his son Timothy, who committed suicide at 27 in 1993 after allegedly telling a friend that his father had killed his mother, Sybers’s family and friends—even his late wife’s siblings—have stood behind him. “Bill did not do this,” says Kay’s brother, Fort Dodge, Iowa, attorney Bruce Cornell, 58, who, like Sybers’s defense lawyers, maintains that his sister suffered from diabetes or undiagnosed heart disease and that her tissue samples were inadvertently contaminated at the forensic labs. “There was evidence of an affair,” he says, “but not murder.”

To those who knew them, the Syberses’ marriage seemed solid. According to her sister Karen Lee, 49, Kay and William met as science students at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where Bill had enrolled after a stint in the Navy. They wed in 1961 in Fort Dodge, where Kay had grown up as the daughter of a grocer and his wife. Two years later, Sybers, the son of a Tony, Wis., tavern owner and his homemaker wife, earned an M.D. and began a series of jobs that in 1974 took the couple to Panama City Beach, Fla.

By then their family included son William Jr., now 37 and a veterinary student; daughter Jennifer, 28, who works in cellular phone sales; and Timothy. Sybers was appointed medical examiner in 1982 and, thanks to thriving pathology labs and investments, lived comfortably while owning three residences. One was a new penthouse condo in Panama City Beach that Kay—who was overweight but had no history of serious illness—was decorating at the time of her death. “In long first marriages there are ups and downs,” Kay’s close friend, real estate broker Jayne Lindholm, says of the couple, “but they didn’t show the ups and downs.”

Yet in early 1991 William Sybers began a sexual relationship with Judy Ray, now 50, a twice-divorced mother of two who had once worked as a technician at one of his labs. “I considered him a father figure, my best friend,” she says. Judy adds that Kay knew nothing of the affair, a claim backed by Jennifer Sybers, who was home for the summer from Xavier University in Cincinnati when her mother died.

That morning, at around 9, Jennifer became concerned when Kay failed to answer her bedroom phone. “She was the early riser; my brother Tim and I would sleep till noon,” she says. Jennifer went to her mother’s room but couldn’t rouse her. Panicked, she called her father at work, and, according to Sybers, he then sent two employees to try to revive his wife. As Jennifer prayed, an ambulance arrived and her mother was pronounced dead.

Sybers told investigators that he initially didn’t order an autopsy because Kay had made it clear she didn’t want her body cut up—although, prosecutors would point out, she had decided to be an organ donor. In any event, the postmortem concluded that she’d died of undetermined natural causes, and Kay was buried in her Iowa hometown.

Back in Panama City, suspicion focused on Sybers when police discovered records of 144 cell phone calls he had made to Judy Ray—one at 6:36 a.m. the day Kay was found dead. Still, with no solid evidence of foul play, Sybers was able to get on with his life, marrying Ray in 1994. After a period of coolness, Sybers’s children came to accept the relationship—except, apparently, for Timothy, who shot himself on his mother’s birthday in 1993. “A lot of this would not have happened if [my father and Judy] were not together, but I don’t blame Judy,” says Jennifer. “She makes my father happy.”

Sybers’s life became more complicated in 1996, however, when then-Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles asked Shorstein to take over the case. The prosecutor was suspicious because of Kay’s medical history and Sybers’s actions on the day she died—calling Judy, sending others to revive Kay instead of going himself. “I just never, ever thought there was a reasonable explanation,” says Shorstein, who lost a legal battle to exhume Kay’s body against her family’s wishes.

With techniques developed in the late ’90s, prosecutors were able to test Kay’s frozen tissue for evidence of poison and found it. Thus science sealed a conviction, though jurors declined to recommend the death sentence sought by prosecutors after Jennifer and Bill Jr. delivered emotional pleas on their father’s behalf. Instead, William Sybers, who had retired and moved with Judy to British Columbia, is expected to be sentenced to life in prison on April 16.

For Jennifer, seeing Sybers sent off to prison will merely add to all she has lost. “There’s no way in the world that my father could hurt a flea,” she insists. As for her mother? “I would do anything—make a deal with God—to get her back.”

Patrick Rogers

Linda Trischitta in Pensacola