Coronavirus

Man Who Died Ingesting Fish Tank Cleaner Remembered as Intelligent, Levelheaded Engineer

Packets of a Nivaquine, tablets containing chloroquine and Plaqueril
Packets of a Nivaquine, tablets containing chloroquine and Plaqueril / Getty Images

In death, he has become famous as a cautionary tale about the risks of mindlessly following the armchair medical advice President Donald Trump has dispensed from the White House podium.

But friends of 68-year-old Gary Lenius, the Arizona man who passed away last month from drinking a fish tank cleaner that contained an ingredient, chloroquine phosphate, that Trump had touted as a potential coronavirus cure, say they are still struggling to understand what drove an engineer with an extensive science background to do something so wildly out of character.

These people describe Lenius as intelligent and levelheaded, not prone to the sort of reckless and impulsive behavior he reportedly engaged in on the day he died. This account is based on interviews with three people who knew Lenius well and paints a picture of a troubled marriage characterized by Wanda Lenius's explosive anger.

"What bothers me about this is that Gary was a very intelligent man, a retired [mechanical] engineer who designed systems for John Deere in Waterloo, Iowa, and I really can't see the scenario where Gary would say, ‘Yes, please, I would love to drink some of that Koi fish tank cleaner,'" one of his close friends told the Washington Free Beacon. "It just doesn't make any sense."

Lenius passed away on March 22 after he and his wife, Wanda Lenius, drank sodas that she had mixed with a fish tank cleaner not intended for human consumption, Wanda Lenius told the Free Beacon.

Trump critics and the news media have held up his death as a warning against following the president's amateur medical advice, with some claiming that Trump is "lethal," has "blood on his hands," and should be tried at the Hague for "crimes against humanity."

Those who know Gary Lenius, however, say they are troubled by how he has been portrayed in the media and can't imagine him agreeing to drink an aquarium treatment. "I would like people to know that Gary was not the fool that some of the media stories and comments are depicting him to be," said the same friend. "I really don't think Gary knew what he was taking."

Lenius spent over three decades as a senior engineer at John Deere in Waterloo, Iowa. He met Wanda in 2000. In 2012, he purchased a home in a gated mountain community in Mesa, Ariz. After he retired, the couple moved southwest full time.

"Immediately he just fell in love with Arizona," Wanda Lenius told the Free Beacon in an interview last month. "He would say every day, ‘Isn't my mountain beautiful? Isn't it gorgeous out here? Boy, it's nice out here. I wish I lived here my whole life.' Every day," she continued, adding, "He would go on, and on, and on, to the point where I was, like, ‘You're starting to sound a little weird.'"

Gary was "beloved by everybody," she said, a comment echoed by others who knew him.

"Every now and then you meet somebody that is kind, genuine, patient, intelligent, helpful, sincere, and friendly, and you know right away you like this guy," said the friend.

Wanda Lenius did not respond to a request for comment about the allegations in this report from sources who knew Gary Lenius.

A woman who identified herself as a friend of Wanda Lenius's, however, emailed the Free Beacon to say that Wanda Lenius was "not well" and called the information contained in the report "old and inaccurate."

Gary Lenius loved building and flying model aircraft, and he had a talent for it, according to those who knew him. The models can take weeks or months to build and require extensive patience, attention to detail, and technical skill. He joined the Arizona Model Airplane flyers club in Mesa and spent many of his days at the local airpark testing his planes, according to club executive John Mangino.

"A lot of people say we have cliques. I was at one end of the field, he was at the other end," Mangino told the Free Beacon. He said Lenius had been in the club for several years and had a close circle of friends in the group.

Wanda Lenius would often take her terrier dogs and meet her husband at the airpark, and the couple would go for a walk in the nearby desert. Those who knew the couple said they sensed tension in the marriage.

"Wanda would constantly berate Gary in public," said a source who asked that all identifying information be withheld. "Everyone was embarrassed for him, but he outwardly did not seem to care much."

"In our opinion, their marriage was seen outwardly to be as one-sided as a marriage possibly could be: Gary worshiped Wanda," this person said, adding that his wife "would routinely call him a ‘doofus'" and humiliate him in public.

Lenius's friend recalled Wanda Lenius destroying her husband's aircraft model collection after he returned home late for a meal.

"These planes take many dozens and sometimes hundreds of hours to complete," said the friend. "Gary did not get angry, he simply junked the planes that were not repairable and fixed the rest. That is the Gary I knew, he would never get upset, he just accepted what happened and carried on."

In another recent instance, the same friend said Wanda Lenius broke her husband's laptop screen, allegedly because she was angry he had updated the Windows software on her computer.

"Gary just ordered up a new LCD screen from Dell and took it apart and replaced the screen himself," said the friend. "He knew nothing about repairing laptops, but he was a smart guy, he learned how."

The couple met while working at John Deere in Waterloo in 2000, according to Wanda Lenius. Gary Lenius was a longtime senior engineer at the company and Wanda Halverson had recently started as a temp worker. Both were divorced. They married by the end of the year, and Wanda Lenius was hired full time in the company's supply management division.

Seven months after their wedding, the Waterloo Police Department responded to a domestic incident at their home. The couple had gotten into an argument "concerning counseling and a possible divorce" during which Wanda allegedly hit her husband in the chest and swung a mounted birdhouse at him, according to a court affidavit from the responding officer, William Sauerbrei.

The state attorney's office charged Wanda Lenius with misdemeanor domestic abuse assault. But the couple reconciled and Gary Lenius testified in support of his wife at the trial, saying he was not hurt or put in fear of injury. The judge found Wanda not guilty.

In the verdict, Judge Nathan Callahan wrote that the "911 tape certainly contains sufficient evidence to establish probable cause for [Wanda Lenius's] arrest, and the observations of the officers were consistent with a finding of probable cause for arrest of the Defendant." But due to Gary Lenius's trial testimony, the judge said he was unable to find "proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendant either placed her husband in fear, injured him, or that she had the intent to do so."

In 2005, after working full time at John Deere for four years, Wanda Lenius went on long-term disability after developing debilitating mental and physical health problems from gender and age discrimination she faced at the company, according to court records in a 2012 lawsuit she filed against John Deere.

Wanda Lenius told the court that she faced "gender-based harassment" and age discrimination, including getting passed over for promotions because she was a woman in her 40s. The litigation was similar to a lawsuit she had filed in 1997 against her former employer, the Cedar Valley Medical Clinic, although in that case, she said the company discriminated against her because she was viewed as a "young, single girl." That case was dismissed in 1999.

Dr. James Harding, Wanda's psychologist at the Black Hawk-Grundy Mental Health Center in Waterloo, told the court in the John Deere lawsuit that Wanda had post-traumatic stress disorder and anger issues due to her experience at the company.

"In the process of externalizing her stress, she remains very angry and full of adrenaline much of the time which has been very hard on her health," he said in a July 31, 2013, letter. "Anything related to John Deere such as signs, colors, even former friends there can be powerful triggers to flashbacks, causing rage and a desire to attack back."

Wanda Lenius said during a deposition in the case that she was "furious all the time" and that the stress had taken a toll on her marriage.

"I'm just mad," she said. "I want my husband to retire even though he doesn't want to because I do not want to ever hear [those] two words again: ‘John Deere.' I never want to hear that again in my life when this is over with. Ever. And I am moving as far away as I can get without leaving the United States of America."

In a phone interview with the Free Beacon, Wanda said she and her husband had seen President Trump praise a drug called chloroquine on the news, citing preliminary studies that showed it could be a promising treatment for coronavirus. She said she remembered purchasing a jar of "chloroquine phosphate" years before to clean a fish tank.

The powder form of the drug is sold by aquarium suppliers and is used to treat viral outbreaks in large fish tanks. She told the Free Beacon she had mentioned this to her husband "and he kind of laughed at me, you know. It was just a regular conversation."

She said she didn't think about chloroquine again until a few days later, March 22, when Lenius confessed to her that he had hurt his leg while riding his new dirt bike and might have to go see a doctor.

"I'd already stocked the house with groceries and extra dog food and everything was set. We were ready to self-isolate," said Wanda. "He didn't want to tell me that he got hurt bad because he knew I was upset. I didn't want him to ride a motorcycle, he was 68 and I didn't want him getting hurt."

Wanda Lenius said her husband was planning to schedule a doctor's appointment to have his leg looked at and the couple worried he might pick up coronavirus at the clinic. That's when, she said, she reached for the fish tank cleaner in her pantry.

Asked if she and Lenius had a conversation about taking the chloroquine at that time, she told the Free Beacon: "No. I mean, it was really kind of a spur of the moment thing," adding that the couple ingested "one teaspoon and some soda" each—at least four times the lethal limit.

A friend of Lenius's said that Wanda Lenius "often made a cocktail of vitamins for Gary."

Those who knew Gary said he was in "good spirits" and seemed "normal" in the days before he died. One source said that Gary had recently started undergoing chelation therapy, a medical procedure that is typically used to treat people who have abnormally high levels of heavy metals in their blood, such as lead, mercury, or arsenic. It is sometimes also used as a homeopathic remedy for heart disease, autism, and Alzheimer's disease.

About a week before he passed away, a friend said Lenius told him "that he would never remarry if something happened with him and Wanda."

"Gary loved Wanda," said the friend. "He trusted her to do the right thing for him, I doubt that he second-guessed when she gave him the chloroquine."