'Salt' in My Beer: The Trial of Steve White

I often shake salt into my glass of beer. Because of weird health problems, I must replace sodium loss constantly. I'm glad I never encountered Steve White. He tried to kill business partner and neighbor Phil Rouss with mercury and arsenic, the latter poison being poured into Rouss's beer.

The facts are detailed by Judge Tipton in State v. White, 28 TAM 29-13 (Tenn. Crim. App., May 23, 2003). Here's a summary.

Victim Rouss of Bartlett had an antique car restoration business. White, a former public school teacher, joined the business in 1997. White duped Rouss into making White 98-percent owner. Rouss naively let White handle the finances, including bank accounts. White secured a $100,000 insurance policy on Rouss's life. The beneficiary? Yep, Steve White.

During 1997 Phil Rouss began to feel ill, especially after sharing meals with White. "Every time I ate with him I seemed to get sick," he testified. Elaborating, he described drinking and eating with White at the Lone Star Steakhouse in Bartlett.

Q.       "Did anything unusual happen in any of those three occasions at the Lone Star?"
A.       "Yes, I noticed the defendant seemed to drop something into my beer one night .... I asked him what it was. He said that it was salt. He said everybody puts salt in beer. And I had seen people put salt in beer. I said: 'Well, I don't put salt in my beer, Steve.' [He said:] 'Well, it takes the bitterness out.'"
Q.       "Describe how he did this. Did he take a salt shaker and shake it in your beer?"
A.       "No, I saw it from the palm of his hand. It looked like salt to me."

A search of White's premises uncovered containers of substances with arsenic and mercury. Dr. Kevin Merigian, an expert in medical toxicology and clinical pharmacology, testified for the prosecution. He diagnosed his patient Phil Rouss with neuropathy, a loss of sensation in parts of the body such as hands and feet. When asked for his opinion with reasonable medical certainty "as to what Mr. Rouss is suffering from," Dr. Merigian told the jury:

A.       "He's suffering from heavy metal poisoning. More than likely mercury and arsenic were the agents, as best I can tell."

Trial began on Monday, Jan. 24, 2000. The jury started deliberating at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 29, and returned a guilty verdict for attempted first degree premeditated murder, theft, and sales tax violations at 2:40 p.m. that afternoon. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court denied permission to appeal on Oct.27, 2003.

Steve White recently died in prison. And Phil Rouss recently succumbed to cancer.


Don Paine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, Bickers, and Tillman LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, Tennessee Judicial Conference, and UT College of Law. He is reporter to the Supreme Court Advisory Commission on Rules of Practice and Procedure