St Andrews student spiked fellow scholar’s wine with chemical used in anti-freeze

The High Court in Edinburgh.  Picture: Bill Henry
The High Court in Edinburgh. Picture: Bill Henry

An American student attending a top Scots university temporarily blinded a fellow US scholar after spiking his wine with a chemical used in anti freeze.

Alexander Hilton (24), slipped methanol into Robert Forbes’ drink at St Andrews University in March 2011.

The High Court in Edinburgh heard how the economics student needed medical treatment days after drinking the poisoned red plonk.

The court heard that Robert didn’t know his alcohol had been contaminated and was mystified about why he fell so unwell.

He lost his eyesight five days after consuming the booze and doctors at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee tried desperately to establish what was wrong with him.

When they eventually discovered what was making Robert unwell, they treated Robert by giving him whisky to drink.

The spirit stopped the methanol causing Robert to suffer more life threatening injuries.

If untreated methanol creates formaldehyde which attacks nerve cells - especially the optic nerve - and can cause irreparable damage to the liver and kidneys.

Police eventually found enough evidence to link Hilton to the dangerous stunt - but the mentally ill scholar returned to the United States soon afterwards.

Scottish prosecutors then fought a four year battle to have Hilton returned to face justice.

It only ended earlier this year when US secretary of state John Kerry gave permission for Hilton to leave America in the company of Scottish police officers.

The story emerged after Hilton, of Princeton, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty on Friday morning to a charge of severely injuring Robert and causing his life to be placed in danger.

Judge Lord Burns heard how Hilton suffered from serious mental health problems.

The scholar, who is currently on bail in Edinburgh, now takes a cocktail of drugs and his condition has stabilised.

Deferring sentence for the court to obtain reports about Hilton’s character, Lord Burns told Hilton that he hadn’t ruled out sending him to prison.

He added: “All disposals remain open.”

Moments earlier, prosecution lawyer Alex Prentice QC told Lord Burns that Hilton was in his second year of an economics and computing degree when he poisoned Robert.

Mr Forbes was in his first year of his studies for an Economics, Modern History and Philosophy MA (Hons.) at the time of the crime.

The pair were part of a large group of acquaintances who stayed at the university’s New Hall halls of residence.

On the evening of March 5, 2011, they were both set to attend a ball at the Fairmont Hotel in St Andrews. Hilton came into Mr Forbes room at the halls of residence with two bottles of wine and they started drinking with other friends.

Mr Prentice added: “The accused brought two bottles of red wine with him.

“He handed one of the bottles to Robert Forbes stating that it was a gift.

“The accused had mixed the wine in his bottle with methanol.

“At this time, Robert Forbes noticed that the bottle of wine was full but the seal on the screw top was broken as if it had already been opened.”

Mr Prentice told the court that Hilton encouraged Mr Forbes to drink the poisoned wine and even instigated a drinking game in a bid to get the American to consume the alcohol.

Mr Prentice added: “The accused stated that no others were to drink the wine. One of Robert Forbes friends offered to drink the wine however the accused discouraged this and at one point he ‘coined’ the bottle.

“This is a student drinking game where if someone places a coin into a bottle you then have to drink it in one go.

“During the course of the evening, Robert Forbes continued to comment upon how foul tasting the wine was.”

Over the course of the next few days, Robert became unwell. The court heard that he slept the entire day after the ball.

Mr Prentice added: “About 1900 hours on Sunday, March, 6 2011, Robert Forbes woke up within his own bed in his room in the new hall at St Andrews University.

“He felt very unwell and could not comprehend how he had managed to sleep so long, nearly the whole day. He had a severe headache, joint pain and blurred vision.

“Assuming that he was still suffering the effects of alcohol consumption the previous night, Robert Forbes returned to his bed that he would feel better soon.

“He slept right through until approximately 10.30 hours on Monday March 7 2011. When he finally awoke again, Robert Forbes found that he was still feeling very unwell with a headache and his vision was deteriorating.

“He also felt that he was short of breath. Later that same date Robert Forbes attended one of his classes however he slept through most of the lecture which was unusual for him.

“At the conclusion of the class he was approached by his lecturer who informed him that he appeared confused. The lecturer suggested that he should perhaps seek medical attention at the hospital.”

The court heard that Robert then rang NHS24 and was told to attend St Andrews Community Hospital. Medics there couldn’t find what was wrong with him and he was sent to Ninewells Hospital in Dundee.

Once there, he was given a CT scan and doctors took blood from him.

Mr Prentice told the court that doctors established what happened the following day.

He added: “At around mid day on Wednesday, March 9, 2011 it was established that Robert Forbes was suffering from the effects of Methanol poisoning.

“He was then admitted to the renal ward of Ninewells hospital under the care of a consultant neurologist.

“He was then given haemodialysis alcohol treatment in the form of whisky which stops the methanol being metabolised into its toxic state.

“Robert Forbes required to remain within Ninewells Hospital, Dundee an in patient for another full week in order to receive this necessary treatment.

“The matter was then reported to the police.”

Meanwhile, the court heard that Hilton had told pals that he needed to leave St Andrews. Mr Forbes told cops that he suspected that Hilton had poisoned him.

Officers interviewed Hilton under caution at Cupar police station on March 11 2011. He told cops that he was suffering from mental health problems but denied poisoning Robert.

Officers allowed him to go soon afterwards.

Mr Prentice added: “He repeatedly denied having opened the bottle of wine prior to giving it to Robert or to having ‘spiked’ the wine or encouraging him to drink the wine any more than he would encourage anyone to participate in group drinking.

“At the conclusion of the interview, the accused was allowed to leave the police station pending further enquiries.”

Officers however conducted a search of Hilton’s room at the halls of residence. Detectives visited a local hardware shop and established Hilton had bought a plastic funnel and a measuring jug.

Cops also seized Hilton’s computer and found that he conducted a google search for ‘Methanol mixed with ethanol’.

Hilton had however returned to America. Prosecutors then began attempts to have him returned to Scotland.

However, Hilton didn’t want to come back to Scotland. There were concerns about his mental health and the final go ahead to extradition was only granted when John Kerry intervened.

Mr Prentice told the court that Mr Forbes had suffered some injuries following the accident.

He added: “It would appear that Robert has suffered no lasting damage to his kidneys.

“The same cannot be said for his vision. Robert’s eyesight began to improve within two weeks of being poisoned. However, he still requires regular check ups and monitoring.

“The majority of his treatment is carried out in the United States rather in Scotland where he is currently residing - therefore, he requires to return to the US regularly.

“He reports to be suffering from occasional severe pain in his right eye, headaches and visual field loss.

“On the whole his condition has improved. He is not now taking any medication. He requires annual check ups with his doctors in the US.

“Robert Forbes is due to graduate from St Andrews University on June 26, 2015.”

Defence solicitor advocate John Scott QC told the court: “This is a case which is very unusual as well as being serious.”

He said of Hilton: “This is a vulnerable young man on a cocktail of drugs. He is on a cocktail of drugs to help him cope with long standing mental health problems.”

“It is a psychiatric history that extends back well beyond what happened in March 2011. My submission will be but for that psychiatric background this would not have happened,” he told the court.

The defence lawyer said that unusually for a case in the High Court and a serious one of this kind he would make a plea that Hilton be spared a jail sentence.

“It has been explained to Mr Hilton and his family that all options remain open,” he added.

Mr Scott asked that Hilton’s bail be continued ahead of sentencing given the peculiar circumstances and the great care taken by the courts in America and the Crown in Scotland to allow him to remain in treatment.

Mr Prentice told the court: “At present the Crown does not consider him to be a flight risk.”

Mr Scott said the US Secretary of State ultimately had the decision on whether extradition should be enforced and representations had been made to him, particularly over mental health issues.

But once the decision was made US Marshals arrested Hilton and took him into custody to await the arrival of Scottish police to return him to face justice. He said arrangements were made for a consultant psychiatrist to see him in Scotland.

Mr Scott said that special bail conditions which were applied to Hilton to allow his release had been discussed and agreed in advance.

The judge, Lord Burns, told Hilton, that he had to get a background report prepared on him ahead of sentencing on July 17.

He told him: “This crime to which you have pled guilty is, of course, of the utmost seriousness and will attract a custodial sentence in the absence of exceptional circumstances.”

“I understand that it has been emphasised to you that all options remain open in that regard. But I am, of course, willing to hear and consider any submissions made on your behalf and in particular your psychiatric state,” he said.

The judge said that having regard to the need for continuity of psychiatric care and the medication he was presently taking he was prepared “in these unusual circumstances” to allow bail to continue.

He reminded Hilton of the special conditions which attached to his bail, which included where he must stay and with whom, engaging with psychiatric treatment and assessment, no contact with the victim, keeping out of St Andrews and not applying for a passport.

Lord Burns said: “Of course, I do not rule out any possibility at this stage, but plainly if a custodial sentence is imposed here questions of deportation arise.”

He asked both the Crown and defence to ascertain what the likely position on that issue would be.

Hilton will be sentenced at the High Court in Edinburgh next month.