The family of a South Carolina man who perished after his wife poisoned him with eye drops initially believed her story to police: that her husband died after falling down the stairs.
Last week, cops arrested the wife of Steven Delvalle Clayton, a 64-year-old businessman found dead in July, and charged her with murder.
Lana Sue Clayton, 52, is accused of tainting Steven’s drinking water with eye drops in the days before his death. Authorities cuffed Clayton on Aug. 31 after an investigation revealed Steven was killed with Tetrahydrozoline, the chemical used in over-the-counter nasal sprays and eye drops like Visine.
“All of us that knew Steve loved Steve. His family. His friends. Everyone is shocked over this horrible death,” one family friend, Lauren Stover, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t even think Steve had any idea that eventually he would meet demise by Lana. I don’t think he had a clue.”
After Steven was found dead in the couple’s palatial home, Clayton told detectives with the York County Sheriff’s Office that Steven toppled down the stairs. But a suicide attempt by Clayton—just one day before her arrest—appears to have hastened the probe against her.
Her arrest also came weeks after a backyard funeral for Steven. Stover told The Daily Beast that relatives held a "commemoration of life" for Steven on Aug. 4 without realizing that he'd been murdered.
“They didn’t have any inkling at all that she was plotting against him,” Stover said. “They looked like a normal couple as far as the family was concerned.”
“We were told he fell down the stairs,” she added. “We thought that’s how he died.”
The family credits the York County Sheriff's Office for investigating Steven's death and informing them of the alleged foul play.
Stover described Steven as a generous, good-hearted person.
“Nobody saw this coming,” Stover added. “We’re shocked and mortified over the cause of his death, for him to be dying such a horrible way and being such a loving human being.”
According to a police affidavit, Clayton poisoned her husband’s drinking water from July 19 to July 21, 2018. “Toxic amounts of the poison (Tetrahydrozoline) were found in the body of the victim at autopsy and the defendant did admit to administering the poison to him in his water without his knowledge,” the arrest warrant stated.
Clayton’s now-defunct Facebook profile indicated she was a nurse for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (In a 2010 bankruptcy filing, she listed her occupation as an LPN at the VA Medical Center in Asheville, North Carolina.)
Relatives say Steven, a retired businessman who hailed from Miami Beach, Florida, was known for his philanthropy and mentorship.
A mother of two and a grandmother, Clayton faces charges of murder and malicious tampering of food. A motive for the alleged rubout remains unclear, though in past encounters with police, Clayton described her husband as “mentally abusive.”
Frank Keefe, a friend of the Steven’s, told the Rock Hill Herald that Steven’s home funeral was “peaceful” and “beautiful,” and that Clayton appeared to be “stoic” during the service.
“(He was) well-respected,” Keefe told the Herald. “Family loved him. I saw a lot of love, a lot of kindness. There were tears of joy at this event, which just makes it that much more stunning when we received the call saying that the missus poisoned him.”
Keefe added that “by outward appearances they seemed to have it all.”
Indeed, the couple shared a newly-built Greek Revival home, which sits on two acres off Lake Wylie, according to one real-estate listing.
Steven worked his way up from humble beginnings as a laborer in college to become an entrepreneur who founded Physical Therapy Resources, a national company, his obituary said. In 1995, Steven retired and traveled the world, his family said.
“Steven was truly a magnanimous man and his broad circle of friends was infinitely diverse,” an obituary penned by one of his four sisters read.
“He enjoyed spending time in the company of gardeners and janitors, as much as he did with captains of industry and finance moguls,” the tribute continued. “He had no mere acquaintances, as everyone he befriended became part of his enormous, extended family.”
He appeared to be living the good life, as an aficionado of music, wine and cigars and a collector of fine art. “His exuberance for life, his captivating stories and his irreverent sense of humor will be greatly missed by all who knew him,” the obituary stated.
Steven and his wife kept Italian Greyhounds named Guinness and Sadie. In one Facebook picture, Clayton was holding one of the dogs. But a review of her now-disabled profile revealed no public images or posts about her husband.
According to social media posts from relatives, Lana and Steven were married in November 2013. Steven appears to have been Lana’s second husband. Stover told The Daily Beast that Steven had been married before he met Lana.
On Nov. 3, 2013, one of Clayton’s nieces posted on Facebook: “Helped my aunt get stuff ready for the wedding, watched my twin little cousins for a bit, watched my aunt marry a man that loves her like she deserves.” The post has since been made private.
Almost five years after their nuptials, Steven died suddenly.
When one deputy arrived at the couple’s waterfront manse on July 21, Clayton indicated that Steven had been suffering from vertigo and hadn’t left his upstairs bedroom very much over the previous few days because of his illness.
Clayton claimed that she let her husband sleep and went outside to mow the lawn. But upon returning to the house, she said, she found Steven lying face down in the foyer near the foot of the stairs, a police report states.
The bereaved wife said she tried to turn her husband over, but couldn’t because of his weight. She ran to a neighbor’s home for help, and EMS and the coroner arrived soon after.
A York County detective was tipped to the death because of Steven’s “age and lack of medical history.” At first, authorities “believed the event to be cardiac in nature due to the physical evidence and condition of the deceased,” the report adds.
Weeks after Steven’s funeral, Clayton allegedly tried to take her own life. On Aug. 30—the day before Clayton was arrested—police were dispatched to the home for a possible suicide.
A neighbor, Mike Kelly, told cops he found suicidal notes from Clayton. When two officers approached the back of the house, they smelled natural gas. They opened the door and “were overwhelmed by the fumes,” a police report said.
“We tried to look around the house but we could not breathe to do a full search of the home,” the report continued. “On the back deck there were several suicidal notes on the table.”
It’s unclear if those notes contained confessions by Clayton regarding her husband’s method of death.
After fire officials arrived and turned off the gas, a detective and a crew of firefighters entered the home with oxygen masks. They found Clayton on her bed, breathing but unconscious.
Neighbors told police they last saw Clayton on Aug. 29 around 9:30 p.m. She was distraught at the time, and asked if they would watch her dogs.
Still, this wasn’t Clayton’s first brush with police.
About two years before, Clayton shot Steven with a crossbow while he was sleeping. She told authorities the injury was an accident.
Clayton said she was struggling to load her crossbow downstairs one morning in May 2016, as her husband slept in his room upstairs. “She stated that the two sleep in separate beds,” a police report noted at the time.
She grew tired and went upstairs with her crossbow in tow.
“She stated that she sat it up against a night stand and went to get into the bed and realized her husband was already occupying that bed,” the report said. Clayton decided to move to another bedroom. As she picked up the hunting weapon, “it accidentally went off and struck her husband in the back of the head,” the document added.
Steven, whose head was bleeding, woke up yelling. Clayton said she administered aid to her wounded spouse. When a sheriff’s sergeant arrived to check on him, Steven said he was fine and the shooting was “accidental.”
“He told [the officer] he did not believe she was trying to kill him, but she has problems sleeping at night and sleep walks,” the police report stated.
Clayton, however, suggested their relationship was fraught.
She told authorities in 2016 that her husband “is mentally abusive towards her,” and the responding officer noted she was crying and very upset.
“She advised that he has mood swings and one moment he is nice to her and the next moment he can be cruel towards her,” police said in a report. “She stated that he rants and berates her but has never hit her. Both [Clayton and Steven] stated the incident was accidental.”
Stover, who is representing the family in media interviews, told The Daily Beast there were no outward indications of marital problems or abuse.
In May 2017, a detective closed the crossbow case. “During the investigation, no intent to commit a crime was found,” a case report said. “Incident was unfounded.”
Now Steven’s family is fighting Clayton for his assets. According to the Herald, Steven’s home is valued at $822,000, per county records. Steven also owned a lot next to the home valued at $385,000.
The Herald reported that Clayton was appointed the personal representative for her husband’s estate. Stover told The Daily Beast they're speaking to a probate attorney to deal with the matter.
“They’re not supporting any financial gain for someone who has actually been responsible for the termination of their brother’s life,” Stover said.