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Toxicologist: Even ER might not save victims of designer drug that killed Alaskan

Zaz Hollander
Erik Hill

Matthew Scott last year became the first Alaskan to die of a methylone overdose.

The 20-year-old University of Alaska Anchorage student from Meadow Lakes joined a small but growing roster of young victims of this designer drug often referred to as "Molly" but also found in "bath salts," another synthetic cathinone.

Robin Gattis, the 20-year-old Wasilla resident who gave Scott the drugs, knew Scott was overdosing but didn't summon medical attention because he didn't want to get caught, federal prosecutors wrote in a sentencing document filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

But one expert says methylone can be so potent and unpredictable that even a trip to the emergency room might not have saved Scott.

Florida toxicologist Julia Pearson studied three of the first reported methylone-related deaths in the country: two 23-year-old Floridians and a 19-year-old from Missouri, according to a case report Pearson and others published last year in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology.

"Those three cases, they were all in the ER and didn't make it. They all got medical help and medical intervention and it didn't work," said Pearson, chief forensic toxicologist with the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office in Tampa. "When your organs are shutting down, there's essentially nothing they can do, ...which is why I think this is such a dangerous drug."



YOUNG VICTIMS, HIGH TEMPERATURES

Pearson said she never determined exactly what killed the three young victims she examined. All three exhibited common symptoms: rapid heart rate, high blood pressure and remarkably high body temperatures.

Jairious McGhee, a 23-year-old aspiring chef, registered a 105.9-degree temperature upon admission to a Tampa emergency room on a Saturday evening in April 2011, according to media reports and the journal article.

McGhee, originally thought to have viral meningitis, was later found to be the first death related to "bath salts" in the country.

Police found McGhee banging on cars and yelling in the middle of a major intersection. At the hospital, providers placed a "combative" McGhee under a cooling blanket and gave him IV fluids, according to the report. His heart stopped five times in the next 24 hours until he suffered from fatal cardiac arrest.

The 19-year-old victim, a young woman from Kansas City, reportedly took only one pill at a concert before going into seizure, according to the report.

"Shortly thereafter, she collapsed, and then got up and danced for several minutes," the report states. "She then sat down, complaining of 'not feeling right,' and was witnessed to seize twice by an off-duty paramedic at the club."

By the time she got to a local hospital, the teenager was flat-lining on heart monitors, had a temperature of 103.9 degrees and was pronounced dead eight minutes later.

A 23-year-old man in Tampa had a 107-degree temperature when he got to the ER after taking the drug at an after-hours club, the report states. Club management dealt with his reportedly erratic behavior by tying him to a chair with plastic food wrap and leaving him in a van for several hours.

He was pronounced dead 45 minutes after arriving at the hospital.



ALASKA'S FATAL OVERDOSE

Synthetic cathinones are banned on the federal level and in a number of states, including Alaska.

Reports of fatalities linked to methylone continue to surface nonetheless.

Since this past summer, six people between the ages of 19 and 23 died after using "Molly" at a club, music festivals and concerts, according to the Gattis sentencing memorandum.

Gattis in August pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy charge, admitting he imported a total of three kilograms (6.6 pounds) of methylone from Shanghai to Alaska starting in late 2011, just as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency announced plans to make the substance illegal. A plea agreement limited his prison time to no more than 20 years.

He is scheduled for sentencing on Thursday.

According to the memorandum, Scott started taking methylone on Friday, April 13, 2012. He continued to use the drug at least through that Sunday morning, when he pleaded for just a few more capsules from Gattis.

A message prosecutors say Gattis posted on Facebook described the batch of pills Scott took as "a little stronger than usual." It continued, "... his knees started turning purple from the lack of circulation which is a sign of mild overdose so I made (him) ... stop taking pills."

A roommate saw Scott the morning of April 15 with a heating pad on his knees, ready to pass out from drugs, the sentencing memo states. Gattis was seen leaving Scott's room that night, when he told a friend to leave Scott alone because he was sleeping.

The next morning, the document states, Gattis called a drug customer, told him he thought Scott was dead, and asked him to check on Scott. "Gattis said that he had to leave the condo because he had Molly in his possession."

The customer got to the apartment with a friend and they discovered Scott face down on his bed, unresponsive. Medics pronounced him dead at the apartment.



UNKNOWN INGREDIENTS

Methylone puts users at risk for several reasons, experts say.

For one, many young people usually take it recreationally -- at parties, raves, concerts -- without realizing how dangerous even small amounts can be. That's because the drug, which is often imported from China, can have a potentially toxic mix of ingredients or be mixed with other chemicals.

The user has no idea what he's getting, Pearson said. And because methylone is so new, the medical community doesn't know exactly how it kills.

"A lot of times we don't even know what drug they're taking," she said.

A longtime friend of Scott's said he had taken drugs from Gattis before but told her it was Ecstasy, another "party drug" Abigail Carns said Scott told her he liked the psychedelic effects and prolonged high.

Carns, a 21-year-old Anchorage resident, described Scott as a "ball of fire" prone to testing boundaries and someone who treated friends as family.

"He had a big heart," she said.

Matt Scott's parents, Debbie Hurd and Dan Scott, said in an interview at their Meadow Lakes home Tuesday that the initial, standard post-mortem toxicology test on their son came back clean for everything but nicotine.

They knew something else was involved, Hurd said. Matt's friends had told them he took some kind of Ecstasy; methylone is sometimes called synthetic Ecstasy or even substituted for it on the street.

Hurd said she and her husband urged the coroner to check the pills that Anchorage police obtained at the scene of her son's overdose.

Autopsy and toxicology results showed that Scott died of "a massive overdose of methylone," according to the federal sentencing memorandum.

Hurd said she asked a federal official involved with the Gattis case if anything good came of her son's death.

"He said it really scared a lot of kids," she said.

Dan Scott said at least one friend of Matt's quit doing drugs altogether.

"So it did help," he said. "It's a hell of a price to pay for us but even in his dying, he helped people."

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com