Investigators trying to determine the source of the arsenic poisoning that nearly killed Deborah Pignataro and hospitalized her two children are being thwarted by the family's refusal to let police into their West Seneca home.
Meanwhile, laboratory tests have shown that while Mrs. Pignataro and the children had higher-than-normal levels of arsenic in their systems, Anthony Pignataro, Mrs. Pignataro's husband, has no more exposure to arsenic than any adult male might have.
"We're told that just about everyone has some minute exposure to arsenic, and it is in their system, and that's what he had," Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said. "The children had a much higher level of exposure, but not life-threatening. Mrs. Pignataro was off the chart. The amount of arsenic she was exposed to could have killed her."
Clark said the investigation into how that happened is being blocked because of the family's reluctance to allow investigators into the home on Carla Lane. Clark and West Seneca Detective Capt. Florian Jablonski said they do not understand the family's reasoning.
"We're exploring several different avenues on how to get access," Clark said. "We need to have people in there to try to determine how these people got poisoned."
"I would not like to see the two children released back into that home until there is a thorough safety inspection, to see if there is any arsenic in there," Jablonski said. "I'm concerned for the safety of the entire family."
Clark said he could not comment when asked if authorities might get a search warrant for the home. He said he hopes Mrs. Pignataro will reconsider her refusal to allow authorities to check the house.
Investigators are trying to determine what caused Mrs. Pignataro, 42, her 12-year-old son, Ralph, and her 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, to be exposed to a toxic chemical rarely found in house holds in Western New York. Clark said police believe the poisoning was intentional -- not accidental -- but need much more information before they can be certain.
Pignataro, who could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday, is a former plastic surgeon who served prison time last year in connection with the 1997 death of a woman who was undergoing breast-enlargement surgery in his office. Pignataro also lost his state medical license as a result of the incident.
Authorities said Pignataro and his wife have had recent marital difficulties that caused Pignataro to move out of the West Seneca home. But Clark and other law enforcement officials have stressed that they do not consider Pignataro, or anyone else, a suspect at this time.
"We still do not have evidence of a crime," Clark said.
Court officials confirmed Tuesday that Pignataro recently asked for permission from a judge to move to Florida, but State Supreme Court Justice Ronald Tills denied the request. Pignataro had to ask Tills for permission because Tills sentenced him last year on a criminally negligent homicide charge in the patient's death.
Pignataro said in his request that he wanted to work at an ice cream business owned by his family in Florida, and that life in Western New York had become unbearable because of the notoriety of his homicide conviction.
His family had been harassed and, at one point, youngsters had placed his son's name on an "assassination list," Pignataro told the judge.
Pignataro was released from prison late last year, but he still faces more than three years on probation.
Staff Reporter Lou Michel contributed to this story.