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Originally published April 22, 2011 at 9:04 PM | Page modified April 22, 2011 at 9:05 PM

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Drug may have been behind the murder-suicide of Spanaway family

Army Sgt. David Stewart, of Spanaway, may have been under the influence of a legal, synthetic drug known by the street name "bath salts" when he killed his wife, Kristy Sampels, and shot himself in front of a state trooper.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes We can ban and criminalize every drug we want to: the fact will remain that we turn to ... Read more
quotes Wee need to quit calling junk like this a drug. A drug and be a medication. This crap... Read more
quotes Ratso"There is absolutely NO evidence that "bath salts" were responsible... Read more

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In a way, it would be something of a relief if it turns out that Army Sgt. David Stewart was under the influence of a dangerous — but legal — drug when he killed his wife and shot himself in front of a state trooper, says one relative.

Otherwise, the deaths earlier this month of Stewart; his wife, Kristy Sampels; and their 5-year-old son would remain incomprehensible, said Stewart's aunt, Teresa Jacobsen.

Jacobsen said Stewart, a twice-deployed combat medic, and his family had been under a great deal of stress in the months leading up to their deaths. But so far the reason behind the murder-suicide has been elusive.

Investigators with the Thurston County Coroner's Office, however, say they may have found something that could explain, at least in part, what happened.

According to Coroner Gary Warnock, Stewart may have been under the influence of a legal, synthetic drug known by the street name "bath salts."

Warnock said granules of bath salts were found in Stewart's car and in his family's home. A 500-milligram jar of "Lady Bubbles"-brand bath salts was found in his pocket, he said.

The product, which contains the chemical compounds methylmethcathinone (mephedrone) and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), has been banned in several states after its use was linked to a handful of suicides and homicides, he said.

Tests have been ordered to determine whether Stewart, as well as Sampels, had the drug in their systems at the time of their deaths, Warnock said.

"It could explain the behavior," Warnock said.

In December, the Washington Poison Center issued a warning about the drug to emergency rooms, according to Executive Director Jim Williams.

"We hadn't had a call yet, but we believed it was about to hit," he said.

He said the drug is believed to be similar to, but more addictive than, methamphetamine. Users generally snort the powder as they would cocaine, according to the state Department of Health.

The drug is believed to be manufactured in Asia, and it first appeared in the U.S. in Louisiana, Williams said. It made its way across the country and has been banned in a number of states.

The Washington state Board of Pharmacy issued an emergency ban on the chemicals found in bath salts on April 15.

This year, the Washington Poison Center has had 45 reported cases of illness or injury related to bath salts and "that's just the tip of the iceberg," Williams said.

Bath salts are particularly dangerous, he said, for a number of reasons.

First, he said, "this drug is designed with a lot of the same products as meth, and it's incredibly addictive."

Second, some users experience paranoia that has "some people — who have never talked about or done anything like this before — committing suicide or killing others," Williams said.

Third, the product has an "aftereffect" that can linger for days, he said.

Bath salts are not to be confused with Epsom salts or soaking salts that are sold in the bath aisles of pharmacies or beauty-supply shops, according to Williams.

"People are not going to accidentally think these are real bath salts," he said. "Every single person who sells these or uses them knows what's going on."

Typically, they are packaged in small, rectangular wrappers or little jars similar to those that hold Carmex lip balm. They can be bought at tobacco shops and on the Internet, with the smaller packages costing as little as $10, and the jars averaging about $45.

According to one website that sells the products, a 500-milligram jar of bath salts should be used to provide five "euphoric" baths.

The temporary emergency ban imposed by the Board of Pharmacy will last 90 days. After that, legislative action would be required to extend the ban, according to Williams.

Stewart shot his wife, then himself, on April 5 in front of a State Patrol trooper who had tried to pull him over for speeding on Interstate 5.

Their son, Jordan Stewart, was found dead in the family's Spanaway home. The boy, who died of asphyxiation April 4, had bruising on his body and a bag over his head, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office. Investigators have not been able to determine who killed the boy.

"It would help us to know if they had taken that drug," Teresa Jacobsen said. "We are hurting so much, and there's so much we don't understand."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

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