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Thursday, June 22, 2000

Woman charged in husband's poisoning death
Peter Downs and Bill Currie
The Standard

ST. CATHARINES, Ont. - A woman has been charged with first-degree murder after her common-law husband died in hospital suffering from blindness, tremors and vomiting -- the result of poisoning, police said.

Richard Sawyer, 28, of Welland, Ont., had been drinking wine and beer in the days before his death on Sunday, police said. He had also been consuming poison that police allege was prepared by his common-law spouse.

Maura Silvana Cabrera, 29, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder on Tuesday.

The slightly built woman, a native of Guatemala and the mother of one of Mr. Sawyer's two children, made her first court appearance in St. Catharines yesterday. She was remanded in custody until June 29.

Dr. David Eden, the regional coroner, would not give the cause of death or the outcome of an autopsy performed on Tuesday in Hamilton, Ont.

Toxicology tests are being conducted at the Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto to determine the substance that caused Mr. Sawyer's death. Dr. Eden said the toxicology tests could take months.

Inspector Donna Moody of Niagara Regional Police said investigators are narrowing down the list of possible toxins.

"We're looking for a specific thing," Insp. Moody said. "We're trying to narrow it down because ... we need to know about it right away. And if they come up with the chemical or whatever the poisoning is, then we can then go immediately and determine the sources of that."

Neighbours in the townhouse complex where the couple lived said Mr. Sawyer was virtually blind by the time he reached the emergency room last Friday.

"He couldn't see -- just fuzziness and shadows," said one man, who did not want his name used. "He was worried. He was scared. [But] he was speaking clearly. He wasn't incoherent at all. He walked into the hospital on his own power. But two hours later he was on a respirator."

Doctors told family and friends gathered in the hospital's intensive care unit about 9:30 p.m. that Sawyer's kidneys and other organs were beginning to shut down, the neighbour said.

"He never regained consciousness from then on," the man said. "About an hour and a half after being there, Maura said Rick had a feeling something bad was going on. She said he was saying: 'I don't want to die this way. I don't want to leave you and the boys.' "

He said the neighbourhood was stunned when police arrested Ms. Cabrera. "We couldn't figure out why she was charged."

Insp. Moody said police have no motive for the alleged poisoning, but are investigating reports by neighbours and family members about their relationship. "He was known to be a heavy drinker, and the relationship was somewhat tumultuous," Insp. Moody said.

Police are also trying to determine how long Mr. Sawyer had been ingesting the poison. "It doesn't appear that it was a long-term thing right now," Insp. Moody said.

The couple's children, 10-year-old Jean-Paul and five-year-old Ricky, are staying with Mr. Sawyer's father and mother-in-law.

Mr. Sawyer worked for a poultry processing company as a "chicken catcher," someone who enters poultry barns during the night to crate chickens for shipping.

Ms. Cabrera worked part-time at her own home-cleaning business. She came to Canada in 1990 and was granted permanent refugee status in 1995.

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