The Iowa Connection to the Viral Story of the Man Who Died from Chloroquine Phosphate

Friends of the late mechanical engineer Gary Lenius, who worked at John Deere in Waterloo before moving to Arizona in retirement, are reportedly troubled by his portrayal in the media

Aleš Tošovský/Wikimedia Commons

In late March, after President Trump began touting the anti-malarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as potential “miracle” cures for the coronavirus against the advice of his own experts, a news story about a 68-year-old Arizona man named Gary Lenius, who died after he and his wife ingested a fish tank cleaner containing chloroquine phosphate, went viral. To many, it was an example of the dire consequences of Trump’s reckless behavior. Conservatives pushed back, arguing the president was being unfairly blamed for the couple’s stupidity.

Now, friends of Lenius, who spent more than three decades of his life working as an mechanical engineer at John Deere in Waterloo, are speaking out, frustrated over how he’s been portrayed in the media. They were interviewed by the Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet based in Washington DC, for an article published Friday.

“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,’” a person described as one of Lenius’s “close friends” told Free Beacon reporter Alana Goodman. “It just doesn’t make any sense.” Lenius, the article added, had “an extensive science background.”

The article detailed his rocky marriage with Wanda Lenius, who told the Free Beacon that she met her husband in Waterloo in 2000 after taking a job as a temp worker at John Deere. It portrays her as a verbally and physically abusive wife who suffered from mental and physical health problems allegedly caused by age and gender discrimination she endured at John Deere, according to a lawsuit she filed against the company in 2012.

It’s unclear from the article if Gary Lenius was aware that his wife had mixed the fish tank cleaner into the soda the two drank before they were hospitalized because of the severe side effects. Wanda Lenius said she mixed it into the drinks as “kind of a spur of the moment thing” after finding it in a pantry, a decision she said was motivated by her fear that her husband might contract the coronavirus if he went to the doctor for an leg injury he’d suffered in a dirt bike accident.

Speaking in an intensive care unit after her husband’s death in March, Wanda Lenius told NBC News that the two ingested the fish tank cleaner as a preventive measure because “Trump kept saying it was basically pretty much a cure” for the coronavirus. “Don’t believe anything that the president says,” she added. “Call your doctor.” (The Free Beacon previously reported that Wanda Lenius was a recent donor to Democratic causes, including a “pro-science resistance” PAC called the 314 Action Fund.)

New York Times media columnist Ben Smith shared the most recent article on Twitter, commenting, “This is a pretty good reminder to be careful about too-good-to-check stories that perfectly fit political narratives.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.