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Crime & Courts

Synthetic drug may have led to crime rampage

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Published:   |   Updated: December 6, 2013 at 08:17 AM

TAMPA — Charlie Bates, the man who muscled his way into three apartments near the University of South Florida three months ago, sexually assaulted four students and terrorized dozens of others, was under the influence of methylone, a synthetic drug common in bath salts that can unhinge the user from reality.

Bates, 24, was chased down by law enforcement officers the next day and killed during a shootout on U.S. 301 just east of Tampa. The autopsy showed extremely high levels of methylone in Bates' body, according to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office.

“The levels in his system were the same as other people who have actually died of that drug,” said Julia Pearson, the office's chief forensic toxicologist. “It was a significantly high level.”

The autopsy report lists methylone as a contributory cause of death. The primary cause is listed as gunshot wounds to the head and body.

The toxicology report could help explain Bates' strange behavior on Sept. 5 and 6 that left dozens traumatized and eventually led to his death.

Methylone, Pearson said, “results in some pretty bizarre behavior, hallucinations, agitation and seizures.”

The compound is a common ingredient in a number of bath salts products, which some users ingest to get high. Bath salts have led to numerous instances of psychotic episodes across the country in recent years.

Law enforcement and local governments have been working to stay one step ahead of manufacturers, who often tweak the ingredients in bath salts in an attempt to avoid prosecution.

Florida enacted an emergency ban on bath salts in early 2011, and the Legislature passed a law declaring them illegal later that year. In Hillsborough County, local government officials have tried to limit the availability of bath salts by banning stores from carrying the products.

Pearson said she has noticed an uptick in the number of methylone deaths in the past year, though across the nation the number of overdose cases has been dropping for the last two years. She has written a paper on the drug's effect on the body and mind.

Methylone is a stimulant that elevates the heart rate and body temperature and can result in bizarre behavior, she said, comparing its effect to cocaine or methamphetamine. She said six people have died in Hillsborough County in the last couple of years after ingesting methylone.

“We have overdoses, where it was listed as the cause of death,” she said, “and one was a heart attack of a man who was mowing his lawn. One was a homicide, with the victim having it in his system.''

In addition to the dangers of elevated heart rate and temperature, she said, the drug also can produce psychosis.

That could help explain Bates' erratic behavior on Sept. 5, when he burst in on four women and four men who had gathered at a home at Cambridge Wood Apartments near USF. He tied up the men and sexually battered the four women, authorities said.

He then ran to nearby Eagles Point Apartments, where he approached a woman sitting outside the front door of her apartment. He forced her inside at gunpoint and intended to rape her, investigators said, but the woman pleaded with him and said she would pray for him. Bates left without harming her.

Still on foot, Bates ran to The Oaks apartment complex and barged in on a party of about 25 people. He told everyone to go into a bedroom, fired one bullet into the carpet and then suddenly left. Outside, he encountered a man who tried to run away. Bates fired at least three shots at him but missed.

Hours later, police spotted him and gave chase. During the pursuit, police and Bates exchanged gunfire.

The chase ended about 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 6 in a ditch in front of the Waffle House on U.S. 301, where several officers opened fire, killing Bates in his car.

Though his behavior is unexplainable, the high level of methylone in his system may chip away at some of the mystery, health experts said.

Ingesting large amounts of methylone can cause psychotic episodes, and the effects are worsened by chronic use, said Alfred Aleguas, managing director for the Florida Poison Information Center Tampa.

“In binges, where they go for a couple of days using it and show up in (emergency rooms) and are admitted, it usually takes a few days for them to come back to their baseline,” Aleguas said.

Like cocaine and methamphetamine bingers, he said, methylone users “get really paranoid and violent and there is no reasoning with them. When they get cornered, there's no reasoning going on there.”

Florida has struggled during the past couple of years to eradicate bath salts. Even though Florida outlawed them in 2011, law enforcement agencies say the products still are being sold, bought, distributed and ingested on the streets.

Two months ago, Hillsborough County began enforcing a new strategy: citing sellers of synthetic drugs under code enforcement rules adopted by the county commission.

The code enforcement rules don't include criminal penalties but do carry hefty fines.

Across the nation, the number of cases of bath salts poisonings has dropped since 2011, when it peaked with 6,137 cases reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. A year later, the number dropped to 2,691, and from January through October 2013, 833 cases were reported.

Florida followed that trend, according to the Florida Poison Information Center, which recorded 173 reports of bath salts poisoning in 2011 and 93 last year. This year, through Oct. 31, authorities reported 45 cases.

The drop likely is a combination of users becoming aware of the violent effects of the chemical compounds and moves by authorities to outlaw the sale and possession of bath salts, said Hillsborough County sheriff's Capt. Kyle Cockream.

Before 2011, bath salts were widely unknown. Police and poison control centers dealt with numerous cases that year, he said, but the numbers have been falling since as “people wised up to it,” he said.

He said the effort to curb sales and use of bath salts in Hillsborough County is working, though the drug has not been eradicated.

“We feel like we've made a lot of inroads in compliance, but we're not naive, either,” he said. “What we've done is force it underground. But we're still going after them.”

Cockream said the autopsy report that shows methylone in Bates' system when he was killed could help explain his actions.

“His random behavior,” Cockream said, “sounds in line with what we've found in bath salts users all over central Florida.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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