Crime & Courts

He gave his roommate fentanyl. Now he's facing manslaughter charges.

Roland Zumwalt moved into the house on a quiet road in Kenai last spring, looking for a fresh start.

A truck driver who grew up on the Kenai Peninsula, the 32-year-old had been in and out of jail for crimes that were a direct result of a festering drug addiction, his father said.

His new home was a privately owned house off the Kenai Spur Highway where men just released from prison could rent a room cheaply while they got back on their feet. Owned by a Christian couple from Soldotna, who considered renting to felons with few options as a form of ministry work, it was supposed to be an environment free from the drugs and alcohol that had led so many of the men to jail in the first place.

But on May 16, less than a month after he moved in, Roland Zumwalt was found dead of an overdose.

Police found a makeshift pipe fashioned out of a pen, tinfoil and a fentanyl patch in his room. An autopsy confirmed he had died from an overdose of fentanyl, a painkiller 100 times more potent than morphine that experts say is the newest wave in Alaska's unfolding opioid epidemic.

On Friday, more than nine months later, one of Zumwalt's former roommates was charged with manslaughter in his death.

The charge makes James "JJ" Harris, 67, one of only a handful of Alaskans charged with manslaughter for allegedly providing drugs to a person who overdosed. Unlike others prosecuted in recent years for supplying drugs that led to someone's death, Harris was prescribed the fentanyl patches police say he gave Zumwalt.


"I was stupid," Harris is quoted as telling police investigators in a probable cause statement filed with the court in Kenai. "I should have said no man, I can't give you any of my medication cause I don't know what it will do to you."

Scot Leaders, the district attorney in Kenai, did not return calls or emails about the case.

[Feds, not state, to pursue charges in Anchorage girl's fatal heroin injection]

The case highlights the dangerous place fentanyl fills in Alaska's opioid epidemic.

"I increasingly think of (the epidemic) as (happening in) three waves, the first being prescription painkillers, the second being heroin and the third being fentanyl," said Dr. Jay Butler, Alaska Division of Public Health chief.

Last year fentanyl or its synthetic forms, alone or in combination with other drugs, were a factor in at least seven overdose deaths in Alaska, according to a November epidemiology bulletin.

Highly potent fentanyl is especially treacherous when used after a period of abstinence from opioids, said Butler.

To Zumwalt's father, the legally prescribed fentanyl patches in his son's home raise questions about what constitutes a safe living situation for an addict.

"Why on earth would they send him to a place like that?" said Bill Zumwalt. "Fentanyl is deadly. Especially for heroin addicts."

'Things took a turn'

Roland Zumwalt grew up on the Peninsula, said his dad. He loved animals, and was quick-witted and "very funny — just a hoot," his father said. After a bitter divorce split the family, Zumwalt became close with his grandmother.

When she died, "things really took a turn for the dark side," his father said.

After high school, Zumwalt went to University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau to pursue his dream of becoming a marine biologist, but ended up dropping out.

Things fell apart.

"He started stealing things and taking advantage of people. People who were trying to help him. He went to jail a couple times — it was stealing to sell and pay for drugs. By that time, I'm sure he was on heroin," said Bill Zumwalt.

Roland Zumwalt spent time living in Texas with his father, who now lives in Spokane, Washington, and later attended truck-driving school in Wasilla. He did so well he was asked to help teach and was offered a job right away, his dad said. His family thought his life had turned a corner.

"The drugs crept in," his father said. "And it just snowballed."


Court records show Zumwalt's most recent case settled in April 2016. He moved into the Kenai rooming house around that time.

[Overdose deaths suggest emergence of deadly synthetic opioid 'pink' in Alaska]

Alpha House 

Sheryl and Perry Neel bought a foreclosed house off the Spur Highway a few years ago and renovated it with plans to extend their longtime Christian prison ministry to housing ex-inmates.

"We rent it out to guys that are getting out of prison that have nowhere to go," said Sheryl Neel. "Basically when they get out they have nothing. We rent them a room at a reasonable price. We don't make money on this house at all."

One of the rooms goes rent-free to a widower who manages the house. The other four rooms board a revolving cast of recently released convicts.

Locals in the area call the home "Alpha House," because some of its residents are graduates of the Alpha Re-entry Initiative, a faith-based program at Wildwood Correctional Facility, though Neel says the home isn't affiliated with the program.

The Neels get no government funding and have no formal connection with the Department of Corrections. People hear about the house through word-of-mouth, substance abuse program counselors or probation officers, Sheryl Neel said.


Residents at the house aren't required to go to church, but they must observe the Neels' rules: no guns, no drugs, no alcohol. Guests are allowed, but not in bedrooms.

Harris, the man charged in Zumwalt's death, had lived in the house more than once, Sheryl Neel said. While working at a cannery, Harris had broken terms of his probation and been sent back to jail. Court records show he has a string of felony DUI convictions.

At 67, he was one of the oldest residents. He was known for being blunt and a joker, Sheryl Neel said.

"He told you what he thought when he thought it," Sheryl said.

According to the probable cause statement, Harris told investigators who interviewed him after Zumwalt's death that he gave his roommate "several fentanyl patches" left over when his prescription changed to a higher strength.

"Harris reached into his dresser drawer and gave Zumwalt the two remaining patches," a 25 microgram dose and a 50 microgram dose, the probable cause statement says. "He told Zumwalt not to take both patches at the same time and to try the 25 (microgram) patch first."

It wasn't until Jan. 4, that Kenai police applied for a search warrant to look up the prescription records for Zumwalt and Harris. The reason for the monthslong delay isn't clear.

The manslaughter charge was filed after police found Zumwalt had no fentanyl prescription, while Harris did. After arraignment on Feb. 19, he was assigned a public defender.

Zumwalt's father doesn't understand why his son was living at Alpha House at all.

"How could he be allowed to stay at this place with no supervision and they have a guy there who has legal access to this drug fentanyl?" he said.

Neel said she and her husband were saddened by Zumwalt's death.

"I think about his family a lot. It was tragic," she said.


They don't have any plans to stop renting rooms to men leaving prison.

They maintain rules and have kicked other residents out for breaking them, but they aren't set up to be a supervised residential substance abuse program or a structured halfway house, Neel said.

[Juneau's heroin heartbreak]

Both Zumwalt and Neel agree on one thing: You can hardly go anywhere on the Kenai without running into someone who has been touched by opioid addiction.

"I'm pretty sure every family on the Peninsula either knows someone or is related to someone who has some sort of addiction problem," said Sheryl Neel. "It's terrible."

Zumwalt's father said he tries not to fixate on his son's death. It can't be changed.


"I try not to think about it," he said. "But I do."

Correction: This story originally incorrectly said Fentanyl is 500 times more powerful than morphine; it is actually estimated to be about 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.