DA drops case in bath salts death
Criminal charges will not be filed in the case of a 19-year-old Grand Junction man who was high on bath salts and acting violently at a party last April when he was strangled by others who tried to subdue him, District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said Tuesday.
“If I had a situation where somebody was putting a choke hold on someone else who wasn’t being violent, or tweaked out on drugs, we’d certainly be looking at manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide,” Hautzinger told a news conference at the Mesa County Justice Center, explaining his non-charging decision in the investigation of the April 10 incident that led to the death of Daniel J. Richards.
Richards’ death was believed to be the first in western Colorado linked to synthetic cathinones or “bath salts,” stimulants which were made criminal to possess or sell in Colorado just last month.
“In this case, I can’t say there was anything reckless or negligent about trying to get this person under control,” the district attorney added.
Hautzinger said an investigation showed Richards had purchased several hundreds of dollars worth of bath salts prior to attending a house party on April 10, accompanied by nine or 10 friends ages 18 to 20.
They were present at the invitation of the homeowner, identified only by Hautzinger as a “middle-aged” adult.
“At one point early on in the party, Daniel becomes uncontrollable and very violent,” Hautzinger said. Richards at one point tried to punch the homeowner, while later pulling a knife described to be around roughly 12 inches long, the district attorney and Grand Junction police investigators said.
Trip to hospital
Richards was taken to the ground by a friend “with the assistance of one or two people” who applied something of a chokehold around Richards’ neck, Hautzinger said.
“He appears to calm down, his friends release him and all of sudden (Richards) jumps up and starts to fight again,” Hautzinger said.
Richards was decked a second time by friends who again applied pressure around the boy’s neck. Witnesses reported Richards “appeared to go to sleep,” claiming to hear snoring type noises, Hautzinger said.
He said after approximately 15 minutes of Richards being non-responsive, Richards’ friends decided to rush him to St. Mary’s Hospital, where he died the next day.
Asked if others at the party were suspected of consuming bath salts, Hautzinger replied, “I haven’t seen any evidence to indicate that, but I can’t positively say not. We have witness statements indicating only one person was acting violently and out of control.“The Mesa County Coroner’s Office ruled the death a homicide caused by strangulation. A toxicology report showed the presence of marijuana, a blood-alcohol level of 0.067 percent, in addition to Alpha-PVP, one of several synthetic bath salt compounds.
Change in law
Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper said an exhaustive investigation, which sifted through a host of “allegations and rumors,” found there was no criminal intent to cause Richards’ death.
“It’s a real tragedy and one so easily prevented,” Camper said. “The effect of this drug in many cases is worse than methamphetamine and cocaine.”
The bath salt compound identical to the one found in Richards’ system was banned last month — possession is now a misdemeanor — under legislation signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper. Several retailers suspected of selling the products in the past received warning letters last week from Mesa County authorities, threatening enforcement action if they remain available.
“Our follow-ups indicate those retailers are complying with the law,” Camper said.
Detective Steve Cowgill said they never established exactly where Richards purchased the bath salts, adding they received information they might have come from a store on North Avenue. The claim wasn’t supported by witnesses or video surveillance, he said.
Hautzinger told the press conference Richards’ family was upset with the non-charging decision. They did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday after being contacted by The Daily Sentinel.