CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For five years, the death of Sandra Baker Joyner after a mini-facelift was attributed to medical error. But last month, investigators proposed a more sinister explanation.
As she lay bandaged in the recovery room, Joyner was poisoned by a nurse anesthetist who believed Joyner had stolen her boyfriend back in high school some 30 years ago, authorities say.
The nurse anesthetist, Sally Jordan Hill, 50, is jailed without bail on first-degree murder charges. On Thursday, prosecutors announced they would not seek the death penalty.
Joyner, 45, had gone to the office of Dr. Peter Tucker in 2001 for a facelift, fat grafts to her lips, and laser therapy on her eyelids and facial scars. But she went into respiratory arrest in the recovery room and was taken to a hospital, where she died several days later after being taken off life support. An autopsy blamed her death on a lack of oxygen to the brain caused by respiratory arrest.
At a court hearing last month, Chuck Henson, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg detective, said he believes Hill poisoned the patient by injecting her with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller. The detective said he also believes Hill turned off an alarm that could have alerted other nurses to the patient's condition.
And he testified that two people — the plastic surgeon and a technician — recall hearing Hill say Joyner stole her high school boyfriend. That comment was said to have been made during Joyner's initial visit to Tucker's plastic surgery practice, in 1999.
In court last month, two weeks after Hill's arrest, defense attorney Jean Lawson disputed the allegations.
"There is no evidence that Miss Hill knowingly, deliberately selected this person and killed her. The suggestion that this is the product of a 30-year grudge is outrageous," Lawson said.
Hill and Joyner were students at Olympic High School in Charlotte in the early 1970s. Joyner was a member of the Class of '73; Hill graduated a year later.
During a 2003 deposition given to the state medical board, Hill said she knew Joyner in junior high and high school.
"She was one of the judges of my cheerleading experience when I was in the eighth grade," Hill testified. Asked whether they were friends, Hill said no, but "I would see her and her then-boyfriend ... walk around school together because he was in football and she was a cheerleader or letter girl, something like that."
Joyner later married John Joyner; the two separated before her death. Police said John Joyner is not the boyfriend Hill believed was stolen from her.
The medical board blamed Hill for Joyner's death, calling her "grossly negligent" in administering fentanyl without the plastic surgeon's permission and for taking too long to alert the doctor that Joyner was having problems. The plastic surgeon took responsibility for the death in a 2003 agreement with the board but kept his license. Hill gave hers up.
Joyner's family filed a malpractice lawsuit against the plastic surgeon and Hill; the case was settled in 2003 on confidential terms.
In his 2003 deposition before the medical board, the plastic surgeon blamed Hill for the patient's death, calling her "a rogue nurse on her own wild mustang, riding through the West, you know, shooting whoever she wants."
Tucker described Hill's behavior on the day of Joyner's surgery as out of character: "She's flipped out. She's going nuts. She snapped."
Tucker said he reported his suspicions to the district attorney's office. It is not clear why it took until this year for Hill to be charged; District Attorney Peter Gilchrist has said only that his office asked the police department's cold case squad to take a look at Joyner's death after receiving new information.