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Former MGH researcher charged in wife’s poisoning death

A neurological researcher who worked at a Harvard-affiliated hospital is facing a homicide charge in Pennsylvania after allegedly poisoning his wife with cyanide in their Pittsburgh home in April.

Pittsburgh police signed an affidavit Wednesday, and a complaint was filed accusing Robert J. Ferrante, 64, of criminal homicide in the death of his wife, Dr. Autumn Marie Klein, 41, according to a copy of the filing posted on the website of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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Ferrante, who has been placed on leave from his position as a researcher and professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, was apprehended in West Virginia Thursday night, State Police there said.

According to a biography posted on the university’s website, he spent more than 20 years at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital and joined the Pittsburgh faculty in July 2011.

Ferrante has published a “number of seminal findings associated with the etiology and progression of neurological conditions” with other researchers, and he took a job at Boston University School of Medicine in 1993, the biography stated.

Attempts to reach a lawyer for Ferrante and a spokesman for the Allegheny County district attorney’s office were unsuccessful Thursday.

A Pittsburgh police spokeswoman did not respond to inquiries.

“When the investigation into Dr. Klein’s death began to focus on Dr. Ferrante, he was denied access to that lab.”

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A spokeswoman for Harvard University said Thursday night that Ferrante was a research associate at an affiliated hospital and that his position ended in 1993, but she had no additional details.

According to the affidavit, Ferrante called 911 shortly before midnight April 17 and reported that his wife was possibly having a stroke at their home in Pittsburgh.

Paramedics found Klein lying on the floor in the kitchen and saw a plastic bag containing a white substance, which Ferrante said was creatine, and a small glass vial, the affidavit said.

Klein was pronounced dead at a city hospital April 20, and homicide detectives launched an investigation after toxicological testing indicated that Klein had cyanide in her blood.

One unidentified man told police that Klein said in February that she was leaving Ferrante because he “did not give her any support with her job or their daughter,” the affidavit said.

The man also showed police a text message that Klein sent him on April 13, prior to a scheduled trip to Boston in May, where the man was staying. The message read: “Change of plans. Husband is coming to Boston. Told me ‘to keep me out of trouble,’ ” the affidavit said.

Ferrante also repeatedly asked his wife in the weeks before her death if she was having an affair, police said in the affidavit.

Klein worked previously at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and founded its Women’s Neurology program in 2006, said Dr. M. Angela O’Neal, the current director of the program, in an online tribute.

“We all owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Klein, for starting this remarkable effort,” O’Neal said in a statement posted on the hospital’s website. “Her commitment to excellence, as well as her enthusiasm and vision, continue to motivate all involved with this program. In April 2013, we were stunned to learn of the sudden passing of Dr. Klein. She will be sorely missed.”

Ferrante managed a research laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh where workers told police they helped him place an order for cyanide on April 15, at his request. One worker said the purchase was unusual because it was not tied to a research grant, according to the affidavit.

Ferrante received the cyanide the following day, and on April 17, the day his wife fell ill, he told her in text messages that he wanted to start her on a creatine regimen, police said.

When detectives told him April 25 that his wife had died of cyanide poisoning, he paused for a moment, then said, “Why would she do that to herself?” the filing said. He then reportedly asked, “Who would do this to her?”

In a statement, the University of Pittsburgh said it was continuing to cooperate with prosecutors’ “investigation into the tragic death of Dr. Autumn Klein, who was a respected member of the Pitt faculty.”

The statement continued, “When the investigation into Dr. Klein’s death began to focus on Dr. Ferrante, he was denied access to that lab. Based on a review of the allegations in the criminal complaint and its supporting affidavit, which were received and reviewed by the university late this afternoon, Dr. Ferrante has been placed on immediate and indefinite leave.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.
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