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Prosecutor: Suspect Thought He Could Talk His Way Out of Anything

March 3, 1993

SEATTLE (AP) _ A man accused in the drug-tampering deaths of two people and the near-fatal poisoning of his wife believed he could talk his way out of anything, a prosecutor told jurors in opening statements Tuesday.

But when he called for help after his wife collapsed in a coma at their home two years ago, paramedics were so struck by his demeanor that they believed his panic was fake, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joanne Y. Maida told the jury.

Joseph Meling, 31, of Tumwater allegedly put a cyanide-filled capsule into a Sudafed package in February 1991 in a scheme to kill his 29-year-old wife, Jennifer, for $700,000 in life insurance money. He also is charged with poisoning packages of the decongestant in stores to make it appear a random killer was at work.

Two people died after taking tainted Sudafed capsules, leading to a nationwide recall.

Paramedic Cody Wayne Arledge testified that he felt Meling’s agitation was ″planned″ and ″theatrical″ after his wife collapsed in a coma at the couple’s apartment.

″It was just a gut instinct that came from doing this job for 12 years,″ Arledge said.

But Arledge acknowledged that his partner, John W. Foster, who also testified Tuesday, and three other emergency-response personnel saw little that was unusual in Meling’s behavior.

Defense attorney Carol Koller said Meling was charged ″not because he is guilty but because of an unfortunate confluence of circumstances.″

She said Meling had been subjected to a microscopic examination that could expose anyone to suspicion, while Tumwater’s small police force struggled with an investigation beyond its capabilities and the FBI ignored other potential suspects in an effort to find a quick solution.

″He came to be the defendant because he was the focus of an investigation, not because he is guilty,″ Koller said.

The prosecutor described the scene in the hospital emergency room at the Capital Medical Center in Olympia.

When Meling was told that his wife was near death and he could go in to see her, he waved the nurse away and continued his conversation with doctors, Maida said.

It was Meling who suggested the possibility of cyanide poisoning when medical personnel were baffled by his wife’s condition, the prosecutor said.

And when Mrs. Meling emerged from her coma, it was her parents who spoke to her and caressed her forehead, Maida said, while Meling would not even go to her side.

Mrs. Meling cooperated briefly with investigators after she recovered, Maida said. She and her husband separated after the poisoning, but by the summer of 1991 they had reconciled.

Maida said much of the government’s case would be heard in tape recordings made from conversations with 911 emergency dispatchers, wiretaps placed on the Melings’ phone after the tamperings and a hidden microphone.

Mrs. Meling told investigators she had resisted taking the Sudafed cold capsules pressed on her by her husband, Maida said.

″She remembered the Tylenol poisonings of years past, and she wondered why her husband was so insistent when he knew she was so leery″ of capsules, Maida said.

The trial is expected to last about six weeks.

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