In the end, it was probably Dinky. In the parlor. With dander.
The clues all pointed to him, but South Jersey medical examiner Gerald Feigin wanted to rule out other suspects first.
Now, Feigin has deduced that his own mutt, Dinky Little Dog, has been slowly "killing me." The Chihuahua-terrier mix looks innocent as he snoozes by the sofa, but Dinky's black-and-white fur has been harboring tiny doses of allergens from sloughed-off skin cells.
Feigin began sleeping in a backyard tent in June to escape a mysterious illness he blamed on invisible mold mycotoxins inside his tony home in Washington Township.
"Every time I sleep inside the house, I wake up sick. Something in my house is killing me," Feigin complained in a January interview. His pain was like "a knife twisting in my gut."
The move outdoors brought relief until the bitter weather arrived, said Feigin, who, over the last 11 years, has testified in numerous murder cases in Gloucester, Camden, and Salem Counties. In January, he rented a condominium near his home and continued to work the case.
A few weeks ago, Feigin, 54, said he received test results that showed his 21-year-old house did not have mycotoxins, which are created by mold. It was just the latest in a string of house and environmental analyses that so far have cost him $10,000.
Feigin misses living with his wife and teenage son, with whom he has a brief dinner at home each night. But he doesn't know how else to manage, he said.
His Moorestown allergist suggested a year ago that Feigin likely was allergic to Dinky. But when Feigin removed his "sweet little dog" for three weeks, his symptoms persisted. His pain disappeared only when he abandoned his bedroom.
New information has changed his mind about Dinky.
When Feigin agreed to an interview with The Inquirer four months ago, he said he had hoped a reader might come forward with answers. Indeed, hundreds wrote or phoned to say they were sickened by their homes.
Several people said they, too, slept in backyard tents.
Many said they suffered from Sick Building Syndrome or Building-Related Illness, hard-to-diagnose ailments recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Between autopsies for detective bureaus, Feigin began to research the voluminous information he had received. When all the tests came back negative, he tried another approach.
The graduate of Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Wake Forest University in North Carolina then created an "antigen" of Dinky's fur by blending strands with other ingredients and filtering it. That's when Feigin had his eureka moment. When the antigen was applied, "a raised bump" appeared on his skin.
"I reacted to my dog's fur very strongly," Feigin said. A more standard pet-allergy test had not triggered as dramatic an episode, he said.
Before his 14-year-old dog gets his walking papers, Feigin wants to try one more thing. He wants to have his basement professionally sanitized.
Another recent test revealed he also has a sensitivity to Penicillium mold, which was found in trace amounts in the basement, Feigin said. His skin reacted, and he became short of breath.
"That's what I'm going to try to eliminate," he said.
During his research, Feigin said, he spoke with several experts, including Jordan Fink, an allergist and toxic-mold specialist with the Medical College of Wisconsin. Feigin said Fink told him point-blank: "There's something in your house that you're allergic to, but you'll never find it. You should just move."
Fink recalled the conversation. There are hundreds of different molds, he said, and it may be counterproductive to try to identify the one species or combination that is causing the problem.
"You don't try to pinpoint the cause of the illness; you just fix everything that's wrong in the house," Fink said. That could mean repairing a leaky roof, installing ventilation systems, even replacing walls. "It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said, "and may not be worth it."
But Feigin said he couldn't just leave. He loves his home and the exotic-tree orchard he cultivates on his three acres.
He wants to venture back inside. But if his stomach still churns after the basement purge, his next move will be to say goodbye to Dinky.
"I would hate to give him up - he's the best little dog on the planet," Feigin said. "But I might have to."