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After nine years of investigation, California's sensational Foxglove Murders case is going to trial today, with six members of a Gypsy family accused of seducing and killing old men for their assets.

The case got its nickname from the heart drug digitalis, which is derived from the foxglove plant and was allegedly used in the deaths of at least six elderly San Francisco men. Their deaths date back to 1984, and the Tene Bimbo family of Gypsies is believed to have collected several million dollars in cash and real estate from the victims, the last of whom died in 1994.

But because of problems with the forensic evidence, the six defendants are not charged with murder. Instead, they face a total of 69 charges relating to four of the men, including conspiracy to murder, theft, embezzlement, fraud and forgery, which could carry life sentences.

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All six are pleading not guilty and the defence will argue that too much evidence is incomplete or missing.

Police say the Tene Bimbo family has links from California to New York, where a similar murder is now under investigation, and is notorious for using aliases and false documents such as driver's licences and Social Security cards.

And the behaviour of the San Francisco police did not help the case, which at one point was nearly abandoned. Then, two detectives were dismissed for giving Hollywood agents the entire evidence file. A popular book on the case by Jack Olsen, Hastened to the Grave, was published in 1998 and a movie may be made.

On trial are the matriarch of the family, Mary Tene Steiner, 60 (also known as Bessie Tene Bimbo); her daughter Angela Bufford, 40 (aka Theresa Tene); Angela's brother, Danny Bimbo, 42 (aka Sal Lamance); and George Antone Lama, 43, (aka George Lucci Sano), the man Ms. Bufford lives with. Another brother and a relative also face charges.

Among the victims were a millionaire investor and a retired accountant, both of whom were in their 90s and lived alone in their homes in San Francisco's Sunset district. Authorities allege that Ms. Bufford visited them in her silver BMW, titillated them sexually and gave them meals sprinkled with "magic salt," a mixture containing digitalis.

The investor died in 1994, leaving his Mercedes-Benz to Mr. Lama, but relatives managed to hold on to the investor's $1-million (U.S.) bank account. The accountant, who believed Ms. Bufford was going to marry him, wrote cheques to her worth $60,000 (U.S.) before his relatives intervened.

Years earlier, Angela had married 87-year-old Nicholas Bufford, a Russian emigré. He died three months later, leaving her his $250,000 house and $125,000.

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Another man, Stephen Storvick, a retired Norwegian sailor in his late 80s, began to suspect his food was tainted after Ms. Bufford brought him meals. He destroyed a will naming her as his sole heir and moved away from the San Francisco area. He died in 1992.

The jury will also hear about Philip Steiner, a wealthy retired engineer who married Ms. Steiner when she was 43 and he was 89. When he died at age 93, his estate went to her.

Another man connected to Ms. Steiner was Konstantin Liotweizen, a Cossack who had been decorated by Russian Czar Nicholas II before fleeing the Bolsheviks.

When he died of heart failure at age 91 in 1989, Ms. Steiner became owner of his block of apartments worth nearly $1-million. Although Mr. Liotweizen was believed to have been very rich, only $77,000 was found in his bank account.

In 1994, police exhumed the bodies of Mr. Steiner, Mr. Bufford, Mr. Storwick and Mr. Liotweizen. The coroner found digitalis present in each corpse, but the autopsies could not link the drug directly to each man's death. The prosecution says it will show that the drug had not been prescribed to any of them.

"This case has been unbelievably difficult and has been subject to numerous delays," noted one official with the prosecutor's office, who asked not to be named.

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"Frankly, when police came across this family and their aliases in the past, they simply tried to run them out of town. Who wants to investigate a clan who speak an unknown language, have dozens of aliases and scores of Social Security numbers and are so secretive they make the Mafia look like publicity hounds? It's an investigator's nightmare."

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