Near this time every year, I am reminded of this story. And it demonstrates why insurance regulators and policy makers who are currently analyzing regulations on life settlements and “stranger owned life insurance” should consider the impact of human nature on those insurance transactions. Insurance products are frequently abused by profiteers and life insurance policies pose a significant risk in the hands of the unscrupulous. There is no better example of this abuse than Ronald Clark O’Bryan.
Ronald Clark O’Bryan had serious personal financial problems. He earned $150 per week, was eight months behind on his car payments and had total debts up to $100,000. In January of 1974, over his wife’s objection, he took out $10,000 life insurance policies on both of his two children. Later that year, over the objection of his life insurance agent, he bought additional $20,000 life insurance policies on his son and daughter. By mid-October, both of his children were covered by several life insurance policies but O’Bryan had virtually no coverage on himself. It was also at this time that O’Bryan told a creditor that he expected to receive a large sum of money before the end of the year and extended his debt obligations into 1975.
In August of 1974, O’Bryan, who worked as an optometrist, asked his manager for cyanide to clean gold glass frames—an unusual request considering that cyanide had not been used in the industry for over twenty years. He also talked about the commercial uses of cyanide with his co-workers, as well as what dosages of the chemical would be deadly. After his request for the cyanide was denied, O’Bryan asked a friend (and employee of Arco Chemical Company) where he could buy cyanide and, “out of curiosity,” what doses would be fatal to humans. He finally asked how one could detect the presence of chemicals in a dead body.
Two weeks before Halloween, O’Bryan bought costumes for his children and appeared excited about taking them “trick or treating” even though he had never been excited about it before. A week later, he invited a friend’s family to dinner on Halloween night and suggested that the children from both families “trick or treat” together.
On Halloween, the families met for dinner as planned and then went “trick or treating.” The group approached a house, only to find no one home. The children ran to the next home, but O’Bryan remained behind in the darkness for about thirty seconds. He quickly caught up with the group holding “giant pixy styx” and exclaimed that the "rich neighbors" were handing out expensive candy.
When they returned home, O’Bryan’s son Timothy asked for one of the pixy styx. He took two gulps of the powder, complained that it tasted bad and began vomiting. He went into convulsions and was taken to the hospital where he died within an hour. Fluids taken from his stomach contained 16 milligrams of cyanide. The level of cyanide in his blood was .4 milligrams. A fatal human dose of cyanide is a blood level between .2 and .3 milligrams.
On November 1st, O’Bryan met with the funeral director and learned that a separate death certificate was required to make a claim under each policy on Timothy’s life. He ordered six death certificates. He also described how he intended to use the insurance policy benefits and said the didn't see how the police could “pin” the death on anyone.
O’Bryan was mistaken. The police did, in fact, pin Timothy’s death on him. O’Bryan was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was executed by lethal injection on March 31, 1984.
The story of Ronald Clark O’Bryan is horrific. It is almost impossible to comprehend how a person could murder his or her own child for life insurance proceeds. But examples of life insurance abuse, often equally horrific, are legion. And such examples speak volumes about how basic human nature, when presented with profiteering opportunities through life insurance, can produce unimaginable results.