The coffee tasted bitter.
Louis "Stump" Stowers, a 51-year-old Lula chicken farmer, recalled the taste as he lay in critical condition, hospitalized with kidney failure and a swollen heart from arsenic poisoning.
"I can remember the coffee tasting bitter at the bottom," Stowers said this week, more than two years after the near-fatal episode. "My wife waited on me hand and foot at home — she always had coffee sitting on the bedstand when I got up. I thought I had the perfect wife."
That wife — now his ex-wife — is awaiting trial on charges of criminal attempt to commit murder, aggravated assault and aggravated battery. Prosecutors believe Stephanie Bernice Brooks, 46, fed her husband a steady diet of arsenic mixed into his drinks and meals.
Brooks has pleaded not guilty. Earlier this week, her lawyer told a judge they are ready to go to trial. A Hall County Superior Court jury could hear the case as early as January.
Brooks’ attorney, public defender Adam Levin, declined to comment on the pending case. Her friends and family staunchly proclaim her innocence and say the truth will come out in court, but have declined to comment publicly.
"Everyone is innocent until proven guilty," was all Brooks’ sister, Debbie Simpson, would say.
‘Like a zombie’
Stump Stowers and Stephanie Brooks married on May 24, 2006. It was Stowers’ third marriage in six years, following a first marriage that lasted 22 years and a three-year marriage to his second wife.
Stowers owns and operates four large, modern chicken houses off Latty Road for the Pilgrims Pride poultry company. At the time of his marriage to Brooks, he lived with his adult son in a single-level ranch house near relatives.
Stowers’ next-door neighbor and brother-in-law, Randall Scroggs, later told a Hall County Sheriff’s investigator he noticed changes "right away" after Stowers and Brooks married.
Stowers, Scroggs said, had always been close with family and attended social gatherings, but had become "reclusive and not seen much."
In an interview this week, Stowers agreed. He said by mid-2007, he had quit working at the chicken houses, instead having an employee oversee day-to-day operations. He typically slept until late in the day and awoke with his mind in a haze.
"I was kind of like a zombie," Stowers said. "2007 is kind of a blur for me."
Stowers went to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in early October 2007, suffering from weakness and numbness in his hands and feet. Doctors initially thought he had a nervous system disorder. He was treated and released after a week.
Two days later, Stowers was admitted to the hospital again with stabbing sensations in his chest. His kidneys had nearly shut down and his heart was severely swollen, he said.
A toxicology test requested by his daughter turned up a stunning result: enough arsenic coursing through his veins to kill most people.
"Poison control told me you had to eat it on a regular basis to get to that level," Stowers said.
Stowers said his wife was with him in the hospital room when the doctor gave him the toxicology results. The doctor later told Stowers he noticed a suspicious change in Stephanie Stowers’ expression when he announced the findings of arsenic.
"It showed on her when he told us," Stowers said.
Stowers said soon after, his wife drained their bank account and went to stay at a sister’s home in Conyers. By the time authorities carried out a search of the Stowers’ home on Oct. 27, she was gone.
On Oct. 30, 2007, a Hall County judge granted Stump Stowers a temporary protective order against his wife. In his petition, Stowers wrote that "the only person who could have possibly slipped arsenic to me is my wife. She always prepared my meals, would not let me make my own coffee or fix anything to eat."
Stowers said this week his ex-wife stood to receive as much as $400,000 if he died.
Stowers said he never made similar accusations toward either of his previous wives, and denied that he regularly handled rat poison containing arsenic without gloves in his chicken houses.
"You would have to eat a 55 gallon drum (of rat poison) to get to the levels I had," he said.
Stowers sued his wife for divorce on the ground that the marriage was "irretrievably broken," and the further ground of "cruel treatment of plaintiff by defendant."
In court filings, Stephanie Stowers denied the cruel treatment claim. The divorce was finalized on May 1, 2008, with Stephanie Stowers getting a condominium the couple bought together in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Five months later and a year after the allegations against Stephanie Stowers first surfaced, she was indicted by a Hall County grand jury.
Judge Margaret Gregory set bond on the charges at $50,000. Stephanie Stowers, who had her maiden name of Brooks restored in the divorce, lived in Clermont for six months before moving to Sevierville, Tenn.
‘Most people die from it’
Stump Stowers said his kidneys have fully recovered from the poisoning but he still takes medication for his heart, which doesn’t function at the level it once did.
In an interview this week, he appeared remarkably upbeat about the serious health scare, joking that he had become a long-term test subject for doctors researching poisoning cases.
"Northeast Georgia (Medical Center) had never seen it before," he said. "Most people just die from it."
Though he has made the accusations against his ex-wife in court documents, Stowers still doesn’t seem absolutely certain how the arsenic ended up in his system.
"I can’t tell you if she did or didn’t do it," he said. "Hall County is who made the case against her. But how else could I get those levels in my blood? She was the only one who could have done it."
He said it’s up to the state to prove in court whether he was poisoned by his wife.
"I hope they can prove she did it if she did it," he said, adding, "She probably won’t serve much time."
Stowers said he used to be angrier about his illness but is now happy he survived.
"I’m just glad I’m alive and made it through," he said.