SEATTLE -- Authorities are investigating whether a Washington state soldier had been using synthetic drugs packaged as bath salts before he shot and killed his wife and himself during a high-speed car chase near Olympia this month.
Thurston County Coroner Gary Warnock said Friday that Sgt. David Franklyn Stewart had 500 mg of "Lady Bubbles" bath salts in his pockets when his body was recovered from his car, and some of the powder was found in the vehicle and on the roadway as well. It will take weeks for a toxicology report to come back from a lab in Pennsylvania that can detect whether Stewart or his wife, Kristy Sampels, had inhaled the drugs before their deaths on April 5.
After the chase, the couple's 5-year-old son was found dead in their Spanaway home, suffocated with a plastic bag at least 24 hours earlier. Investigators continue to untangle the evidence to determine who killed him.
Pierce County sheriff's detective Ed Troyer said several packets of the synthetic drugs, which are increasingly sickening people who use them to approximate the effects of cocaine or methamphetamine, were found at the couple's home. The drugs, often packaged as bath salts or incense, can be available for as little as $10 at head shops. One website promising "discreet packaging" offers 500 mg of "Lady Bubbles" for $45.
"You know it's not bath salts. This stuff is dangerous," Troyer said. "There have been some other crazy crimes that people have done who have been on it."
An analysis conducted for The Associated Press recently by the American Association of Poison Control Centers showed an alarming increase in the number of people seeking medical attention related to synthetic drug use. At least 2,700 people have fallen ill since January, compared with fewer than 3,200 cases in all of 2010. At that pace, medical emergencies related to synthetic drugs could go up nearly fivefold by the end of the year.
Investigators suspect synthetic products designed to mimic marijuana, cocaine and other illegal drugs factored in at least nine U.S. deaths in the last year.
"Many of the users describe extreme paranoia," Dr. Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, told the AP. "The recurring theme is monsters, demons and aliens. A lot of them had suicidal thoughts."
The Washington Pharmacy Board took the emergency step of banning the bath salt drugs on Wednesday. The board is part of the Department of Health, which was closed on Friday due to budget cuts and could not be reached for comment.
The Drug Enforcement Administration recently used emergency powers to outlaw five chemicals found in synthetic marijuana, placing them in the same category as heroin and cocaine.
Stewart, 38, was a combat medic who deployed twice to Iraq, for three months in 2007 and for about a year from late 2008 to late 2009.
Stewart shot and killed himself following a chase on Interstate 5 near Olympia. His wife, Kristy Sampels, was found mortally injured in the car from a gunshot wound and died at the scene; her death was ruled a homicide. A state trooper saw Stewart shoot himself as the chase ended.
Doug Esser contributed from Seattle.