Deputies: Tavares school janitor poisons coworker over promotion

TAVARES, Fla. — A Tavares High School janitor poisoned his coworker Monday after she received a job promotion he wanted, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said.

Russell Terrance Smith, 39, was arrested Friday on a poisoning charge after a fellow custodian reported to a school resource deputy that she suspected she had been poisoned, Sgt. Fred Jones said.

“The victim states that she returned to her office after cleaning the cafeteria and took a drink of her soda at which time she felt sick and had difficulty breathing,” Jones said. “Video surveillance showed the defendant and another custodian were the only other personnel who had access to the victim’s office.”

The woman, the school’s lead custodian, told investigators she believed Smith wanted a job promotion and he had been trying to get her in trouble. She told Channel 9 she can't believe it went this far.

“I just still, actually, haven't gotten past it,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

She told deputies she had sipped a Coca-Cola that she had bought from Wendy's and had left unattended on her office desk. After sipping the drink, she said her throat started to burn and she had trouble breathing.

The woman said she recognized the odor, saying it was similar to that of a commercial floor stripper that was near her desk.

Jones said surveillance footage showed that during the shift Smith was one of only two people who had access to the custodial area, and he said that Smith’s statements didn't add up.

“Between seeing him in the area, between the fingerprints on the stripper that hadn't been used yet over the summer, his fingerprints on her cup,” Jones said. “It just all adds together.”

When investigators tested the Coke, they found chemical levels consistent with ingredients of the floor stripping product.

The manufacturer's website warns that the substance is harmful if ingested and can cause respiratory irritation.

“I watch movies like that,” the woman said. “I would [have] never thought that something crazy would ever happen.”

She was taken to Tavares’ Florida Hospital Waterman for treatment.

Smith was booked into the Lake County Jail but was released after paying $25,000 in bail.

The school district said Smith's employment status is under internal review. Officials said he was assigned to another location with no access to the woman or to any children.