A Florida caretaker is accused of ingesting a widely available herbal supplement, then passing out in his parked minivan along with a disabled patient he was supposed to be caring for, who later died from heat exposure.
Joshua Russell, 26, was charged on Friday with aggravated manslaughter in the death of John LaPointe, a 35-year-old man with Down Syndrome. Police say he was left by Russell in a “sweltering” minivan for hours after the young caretaker took a high dose of kratom and passed out.
On May 9, police responded to an address in Seminole, Florida, where they found LaPointe’s lifeless body in a vehicle, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by Oxygen.com. LaPointe, who police say was non-verbal and “had the cognitive ability of a 1-year-old,” was pronounced dead on the scene.
Authorities learned the vehicle’s driver, Russell, had fled the area on foot and soon found him nearby, who was armed and threatening to kill himself, the affidavit claims. The situation was de-escalated and Russell was taken into custody.
After arresting Russell, they learned he worked at local care home, Crossroads of Pinellas, where LaPointe was a patient. Russell reportedly told investigators he had driven LaPointe to a doctor’s appointment and that after the 1 p.m. appointment, Russell drove to his house in Seminole. There, he “ingested two packages of kratom, a substance made from a tree that is sometimes used as a recreational drug,” according to a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office press release.
Russell began driving back to the care home when he began to feel “tired and nauseous.” Police say he turned the Toyota around and returned to his home, parked the minivan in the driveway, and turned the vehicle off before falling asleep. He allegedly only cracked a window beforehand.
When he awoke two or three hours later, drenched in sweat, he found LaPointe “slumped over [and] unresponsive,” the arrest affidavit stated.
Russell allegedly tried performing CPR on LaPointe before going to get a gun with the intent of killing himself. He also tried calling his mother, who he phoned in a panic to relay what had happened, the affidavit claims. Russell’s mother, who also works at Crossroads of Pinellas, alerted authorities to the situation, and Russell was arrested a short time later.
Police said the temperature inside the van was 125 degrees Fahrenheit around the time of LaPointe’s death. A medical examiner indicated LaPointe had died from hypothermia.
“He baked,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said LaPointe during a press conference on Sept. 20.
“I’m sure he had to suffer,” he added. “You’re hot, and you’re boiling, and you’re boiling, and you’re boiling — eventually you pass out.”
Gaultieri, who noted kratom is often grown in Asia and imported to the U.S., where it’s often legally sold, comes in a variety of forms.
“It’s an opiate-based plant material,” the Pinellas County sheriff explained. “You can buy it in stores, you can it over the internet, very easy to access and it’s pretty prevalent out there."
He said the herbal supplement is often ingested but can also be smoked.
“The license to use it isn’t the license to do stupid stuff like this,” Gualtieri added.
Kratom, which is celebrated by some naturopaths and used to treat anxiety, depression, pain, and addiction withdrawal, also has the capacity to be abused recreationally. Kratom is currently unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration, who don’t consider it safe for medical use. Sites devoted to kratom say it isn't effective to smoke it.
Use of the ancient herbal supplement has skyrocketed in the U.S. in recent years. According to the American Kratom Association, 15 million Americans are using the herbal powder.
“A lot of people are going, ‘Wow, it’s legal, it’s cheap,’” Dr. Henry Spiller, director for the Central Ohio Poison Center, told Oxygen.com.
Spiller believes kratom is responsible for several fatal overdoses in recent years. He said the supplement is also popular amongst drug users seeking a cost-effective alternative opiate high. Kratom’s alkaloids produce “opioid-like effects,” which he said have been medically proven to treat things like seizures, for example, but cautioned that an overdose could trigger a coma. Overdoses, as he suspects in Russell’s case, are largely prevalent because many users are not aware of the recommended dosage.
“Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe,” he added. “Take a larger amount and you’ll get into trouble.”
“It’s concerning on so many levels,” echoed Dr. Nicole Saphier, a Manhattan-based physician and radiologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Saphier told Oxygen.com that cases like Russell’s highlight an urgent need for kratom regulation. She said she first learned of the herbal supplement through her son, a 19-year-old college student, who claimed a number of students at his Mississippi university campus were experimenting with the powder. Her son’s peers, she said, were using kratom powder to make tea, and would often mix it with alcohol.
“We have this younger generation who are experimenting with all these things,” she added. “Kratom is actually doing the same thing in their brain that an opioid would.”
She explained that some distributors of the powder lace their product with heavy metals and other opioids.
Several states are now pushing for kratom’s regulation, including Utah, Nevada, Georgia, and Arizona, who have all passed the Kratom Consumer Protection Act, which could allow state regulators to oversee the distribution and sale of the plant-based additive.
It’s unclear whether Russell was using kratom recreationally or to treat another condition. Police weren’t able to say how long the 26-year-old had been using the herbal supplement, where it had been purchased, or what brand he had consumed. They confirmed he didn’t have any past drug-related arrests.
Russell has pled not guilty and was released after posting a $50,000 bond. No court date has been set, according to the Pinellas County Clerk’s office.
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for our Crime Time Newsletter and subscribe to our true crime podcast Martinis & Murder for all the best true crime content.