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A bizarre death in police custody raises concern about 'bath salts' menace in Tennessee

Acid Bath



Shortly before 9 a.m. on May 30, 2011, in a small rural satellite community just minutes north of Nashville, a Metro Nashville Police Department cruiser rolled to a stop along Baker Station Road, a two-lane tributary of nearby US-41. Its driver, MNPD Officer Neil Wolfe, had arrived to investigate reports of an abandoned vehicle.

Wolfe stepped out to speak with a nearby property owner, who said he had seen the man who left the car. As Wolfe would write in a supplemental report to MNPD dated June 4, the resident "explained to me that he thought that the subject was 'on something.' " Over the radio, a call came in describing a shirtless white male wearing only one shoe trespassing through the backyards of residents near Happy Valley Road, a quiet two-lane road on the north side of US-41 less than a mile from the abandoned automobile.

Wolfe got back in his cruiser and drove to the scene. He arrived to find a half-naked man heading into the trees and underbrush that ringed the area, his naked torso slick with sweat and pockmarked with cuts and bruises. According to his report, Wolfe futilely called after him. The man yelled back — what, exactly, Wolfe couldn't make out — and continued his dazed trek into the woods.

Wolfe began following the man on foot. Around that time, a fellow officer who had run the plates on the mystery car identified its half-naked, partially shoeless owner. He was Michael Lee Minick, a Gallatin man with a criminal record and an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court on a driver's license charge.

Wolfe plunged into the forest, jumping over barbed-wire fences and across creeks for roughly half a mile to keep pace as Minick's lead narrowed. In the middle of a clearing, the shirtless, visibly distressed Minick appeared to give up, panting like a wounded animal and muttering incoherently, according to footage obtained from a camera embedded in Wolfe's Taser.

Training the device on the small of Minick's back, Wolfe warned, "I'm gonna Tase you! I'm gonna Tase you right now!"

The quality of the Taser-camera audio makes it unclear what Minick said in the moments before two metal barbs exploded from the MNPD-issued Taser and latched onto the sweaty flesh of Minick's back and left shoulder. But his screams ring clearly under the canopy of trees. For five seconds, electric current rushed through Minick's nervous system, instantly causing him to collapse in a heap onto the underbrush. Wolfe straddled Minick's back, cuffed him and radioed for an ambulance.

In his own report, MNPD Sgt. Gene Martin, the officer who ran the plates on the abandoned car, said Minick seemed paranoid. He believed drugs had been planted in his car, though none were found. He had wandered through the woods all night, he told Martin, thinking someone was following him.

Yet in this and other reports, officers said Minick told them he suffered from bipolar disorder and regularly took anti-depression medications — a sign of at least momentary lucidity. What's more, he apologized for his behavior. Without further struggle, Minick was cuffed and placed into MNPD custody. An ambulance was called, and Minick was finally given some water. He was admitted to Nashville Metro General Hospital and detained under the authority of the Davidson County Sheriff's Office, and no further incident was expected.

Just hours later, however, the man police say put up little resistance when captured seems to have become a different person. According to multiple police reports, Minick flew into a violent rage, broke free of his restraints, and began fighting with his captors. Though Minick weighed only 135 pounds, no fewer than four sheriff's officers fought to subdue him. The ensuing melee would end with Minick, initially picked up on a minor driver's license offense, in a coma that lasted a month. He never awakened from it.

Minick's death has raised many questions, some of which have yet to be answered in court. But one troubling issue concerns a vial that members of Minick's family brought to the attention of an MNPD officer. Minick had apparently consumed 500 milligrams of a substance called "Loco Motion Bath Salts" — a designer drug of a type that is suddenly getting national notoriety. Easy to obtain, hard to detect, it has figured in a rash of lurid crimes across the country, prompting homicidal, even cannibalistic behavior in users.

Was it enough to make Michael Minick fly into a belligerent fury that resulted in his death? That would be extremely difficult to answer. But the case suggests Tennessee is hardly immune to a drug that's looming as a growing threat.

For most people, the phrase "bath salts" conjured up nothing more harmful than a hot soak with a glass of wine and an Enya CD. That changed on May 26, 2012, when media around the world seized upon the bizarre case of Rudy Eugene, a naked man who emerged from a Miami freeway ramp after ingesting copious amounts of the drug, according to police speculation.

A couple of blocks from the Miami Herald building, Eugene encountered Ronald Poppo, a 61-year-old homeless man. The attack that ensued was almost medieval in its barbarism. Crouching over the defenseless Poppo, Eugene gnawed off the man's nose, part of his lips, eyelids and a swath of his forehead before police shot him to death.

The Miami attack brought attention to other ghastly tales of bath salts users gone insane. In 2011, a Louisiana man raked a knife across his throat in front of his father and sister, convinced police cars were massing outside his home. In West Pittston, Pa., police arrested a knife-wielding couple who were trying to stab the 90 people they said were living in their walls. Rescued unharmed was their 5-year-old daughter.

Information about the drug itself, however, was as vague as the reports of its effects were repulsively precise. Even the term "bath salts" created confusion between the respectable product available at any Bath & Body Works and the entirely unrelated drug available from online retailers and across the counter at convenience stores in some states under names such as Cloud Nine and Vanilla Sky. Last month, as reports of the drug's damage were appearing across the country following the Miami attack, a trade consortium issued a press release addressing the mix-up — coincidentally, on the anniversary of the very day that Minick was rousted from his fevered idyll.

Representing the interests of Big Sodium, the Virginia-based Salt Institute described in a lengthy presser the difference between Epsom bath salts (which you dissolve in a hot bath for the purposes of relaxation and skin exfoliation) and the designer drug bath salts (which you snort, smoke or shoot for the purposes of recreational drug use).

"It is clear that these products should in no way be confused with the traditional bath salts that have been safely used for millennia and were first discovered by the Chinese in 2,700 BCE," the release reads. "These traditional mixtures of inorganic Epsom salt, table salt and baking soda, when added to warm bath water have the effect of soothing sore muscular aches and pains and were even recommended in the medical writings of the ancient physician, Hippocrates."

Morton Satin, the Salt Institute's vice president of science and research, blamed the press for the confusion. "The media should do a better job of making sure the public does not confuse the modern drug jargon term 'Bath Salts,' which are in reality dangerous narcotics, with the traditional and beneficial bath salts that have been used to promote good health for centuries," he said.

So what are the drugs known as bath salts? They're synthetic stimulants, similar in chemical makeup to the cathinone compounds in the khat plant popular among African immigrant communities. Bath salts have their roots in mephedrone, also known as 4-methylmethcathinone, a drug first synthesized in 1929 but revived in 2003 by an underground chemist going by the handle "Kinetic." When swallowed, smoked or ingested, it's said to produce a high comparable to methamphetamine or cocaine.

Even so, 4-methylmethcathinone took some time to become the epidemiological threat it currently seems to pose. In the mid-to-late 2000s, law enforcement agencies in the United States witnessed the rise of synthetic cannabinoids — artificial weed manufactured and distributed by foreign "street chemists" that could be sold over the Internet. As state legislatures began to ban the purchase of certain cannabinoid strains, the children of 4-methylmethcathinone began to multiply, and became a new entry in the quasi-legal "gray market" of as-yet unregulated designer bath salts.

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