An Army medic who killed himself and his wife on Interstate 5 in April enjoyed “the manic feeling” of his bipolar disorder and occasionally skipped his medication, according to Army and police investigations obtained by The News Tribune.
Fellow soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord missed the signals of Sgt. David Stewart’s unraveling because they assumed he was running himself ragged taking care of his ill wife, Kristy Sampels.
In reality, both were abusing synthetic drugs called “bath salts.” That narcotic likely intensified Stewart’s erratic behavior “like dumping gasoline on the fire to put it out,” one of his psychiatrists later told an Army criminal investigator.
No one can say which adult killed their 5-year-old son, Jordan. He was found dead in the family’s Spanaway home with a plastic bag on his head and bruises on his body the morning Stewart killed himself. Investigators said Jordan had been dead for 24 hours.
“We have no way of knowing, and we never will,” said detective Sgt. Denny Wood of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.
Stewart led police on a high-speed chase down Interstate 5 the morning of April 5. He shot himself to death on the freeway in Tumwater as police watched. Inside the car, they found his emaciated wife also dead from a gunshot wound to the head.
The public suicide opened a window on the Army’s push to contain the use of bath salts among soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord as the drugs became popular in civilian markets. Stewart’s death lent momentum to a ban on the narcotics from the state Pharmacy Board.
Autopsies by the Thurston County medical examiner showed that both he and Sampels had bath salts in their system when they died, as well as an anesthetic called lidocaine.
Commanders at the base south of Tacoma gave a briefing in December 2010 to help leaders spot the paranoid behavior of people hooked on bath salts, but the only soldier who admitted recognizing those antics in Stewart was the one who introduced him to the drugs in the first place.
The synthetic drugs have appealed to some service members for the same reasons civilians have turned to them: They’re hard to identify in tests and easily available over the Internet or even in smoke shops.
The private who first gave them to Stewart showed him where he could buy them at a South King County pipe shop. That soldier, who was not prosecuted for a crime, told investigators she last saw Stewart a week before his death in his platoon office.
He “appeared to be under the influence of bath salts at the time,” she told Army investigators.
The drugs were especially dangerous in Stewart’s hands because of his behavioral health issues. His father-in-law told police Stewart was “unstable” before he enlisted in the Army, but there are no records suggesting he received a waiver when he joined in 2006.
Stewart had been in counseling off and on since 2007 for alcohol abuse and domestic problems with his wife. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was getting treatment for paranoia, according to the investigations.
He had an outstanding reputation among fellow soldiers, though he occasionally could be “intense” with his subordinates, according to the Army investigation.
Friends told The News Tribune last year that the couple from Oregon struggled during Stewart’s previous assignment to Fort Bragg, N.C., and during his two deployments to Iraq.
Their relationship appeared headed in the right direction in March 2010 when Stewart was assigned closer to home in Lewis-McChord’s 62nd Medical Brigade.
His supervisors at Lewis-McChord called him “among the best” and gave him top marks for his performance and potential. He was valued as a medic with extensive experience in the civilian world.
His peers knew he was having trouble at home, but they also understood he was a committed father who talked about his family constantly, according to the investigations.
“Little more than 24hrs and I’m back with my beautiful wife and children,” Stewart wrote on Sampels’ Facebook page on Dec. 11, 2009, just before he came home from his last deployment. “Life is great!!”
But reuniting the family didn’t resolve Stewart’s turmoil.
“Ok, is anyone else having fits of rage,” Stewart wrote on his Facebook page on May 1, 2010.
Medical records show Stewart was having nightmares about “death and hurting people” that month. His wife called his doctor in June to report that Stewart “was still agitated and having nightmares” despite his medication.
By November 2010, “Stewart said that he wasn’t taking his medications regularly. Stewart reported he was more agitated and seeing more ‘shadows’ in his peripheral vision which he knew were not there,” the medical records say.
One Army psychiatrist told an investigator that Stewart skipped his medication at least twice and needed counseling to get back on track.
“He could become more agitated, more irritable and more suspicious,” the psychiatrist said.
Adding bath salts to those tendencies would “have the opposite effect as his medications,” the psychiatrist said.
The Olympia police detective who led the civilian investigation into the deaths learned from Stewart’s father-in-law that the medic was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Army records do not cite that diagnosis, but Sampels’ father’s memory reveals the stress at home.
Stewart would be “fine for a few days, and then there would be significant problems,” Gregory Spicer told Olympia police detective Chris Johnstone.
Soldiers around Stewart could tell he was agitated early last year. The usually punctual, toe-the-line noncommissioned officer was missing work and getting reprimands from his command in the medical brigade.
His peers assumed he was out of sorts because he was preoccupied caring for his ill wife, who was suffering complications from gastric bypass surgery.
“The facts that a normally outstanding NCO was missing so much work, had to be counseled for being out of ranks, and had to be counseled regarding maintaining his qualifications, indicate a definite change in normal behavior,” wrote an Army major who investigated Stewart’s death for his command in the medical brigade.
It’s not clear from the Army and police investigations whether Stewart was being retired from the military because of his psychological problems. A spokesman at Madigan Army Medical Center said confidentiality rules prevent the release of that and other information about Stewart.
Spicer, his father-in-law, was under the impression that Stewart was “going to be released from the Army,” according to the Olympia investigation. Spicer “anticipated that this would have already taken place, and did not know why it had not.”
Stewart’s own Facebook posts also suggest he faced the possibility of a medical retirement, but Army investigators did not see evidence backing up that threat. He had behavioral health assessments in November and December 2010, as well as in February 2011.
“There were no indicators indicating suicide risk and (his) current treatment plan appeared to be progressing,” the Army investigator from the medical brigade wrote.
Stewart was reported as “out of ranks” twice in March 2011 and was reprimanded about his performance for the first time.
His company commander and platoon sergeant sought to make a work plan that would enable him to care for Sampels. They believed him when he said he was missing sleep and losing weight because of his wife’s illness.
He failed to show up for work again on April 4. Company commander Capt. Alexander Bertone reached Sampels that day and learned the couple had an argument. Sampels told Bertone that Stewart “left in a complete rage” on foot.
She claimed Stewart pushed her to the ground, and she said she was leaving the state to stay with her mother.
Sgt. 1st Class Jeffery Teart tried to see Stewart or Sampels in person that day. Stewart sent the platoon sergeant a text message saying he “freaked out” and was heading to Florida.
Teart called Sampels and wanted to see her with his own eyes. “She refused to allow this, and then stated she was leaving for Oregon right then,” Teart told Army investigators.
Sampels’ parents told police their daughter didn’t call them the day before she died. She knew she was welcome in their home, her father told police.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/military
A popular kind of drug circulating at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in late 2010 posed a greater risk of addiction than marijuana and was known to trigger paranoia among users, according to a briefing on the narcotic that was distributed to unit commanders.
The base provost marshal published the presentation to help units identify soldiers who were using a synthetic drug called “spice.” Commanders and noncommissioned officers were advised to look out for soldiers who were acting anxious, experiencing hallucinations and suffering tremors.
Spice and other manufactured drugs, such as bath salts, were available online and in smoke shops at the time. Spice was intended to create a high similar to that of marijuana. Bath salts have been described as giving a high similar to methamphetamine.
They were attractive because the chemicals in the narcotics were repeatedly altered, a trait that helps them slip by the routine drug tests all soldiers must take.
“The drugs keep changing, so they can’t be traced,” said Dr. Jolee Darnell, manager of the Army Substance Abuse Program at Lewis-McChord.
A Lewis-McChord medic who used bath salts killed himself and his wife in April. The Army investigation into Sgt. David Stewart’s death said the deaths called attention to the importance of addressing synthetic narcotics even though no one in his command knew he was using drugs.
Anecdotally, Lewis-McChord police and behavioral health counselors believe the popularity of spice and bath salts has peaked.
Part of the reason might be that law enforcement is catching up with the drugs. A permanent ban that went into effect in Washington this fall gives clear authority to prosecute the manufacture, sale and possession of these substances.
“Although we are frustrated that a small number of service members choose to violate policy and use this dangerous product, we are encouraged that the vast majority of our service members appear to be making the right choices,” base spokesman J.C. Matthews said.
Chris Grey, spokesman for the Army Criminal Investigative Command, said the Army has not compiled records of incidents involving bath salts across the service.
About 8.6 percent of service members seeking counseling for high-risk behavior in Darnell’s program in one month this fall were there for bath salts, a base spokesman said.
Former service members say some of their peers were drawn to synthetic drugs because they believed they wouldn’t be caught in routine tests.
“It really did have an addictive quality,” said Deborah Slagboom, 25, a former Marine in the Puget Sound area who has been speaking at public events about signs of psychological distress in the military.
She saw synthetic drugs take root in her South Carolina base three years ago when her peers learned they couldn’t be caught in a urinalysis. They were punished, she said, when the drugs started to affect their work.
“It ruined their careers,” she said.
The basis for this story
The reporting for this story draws from two primary sources: an internal investigation written by an Army major in the 62nd Medical Brigade, and a civilian law enforcement investigation written by an Olympia police detective.
The Army report is heavily redacted; the Olympia report weaves together crime scene reports, autopsies, interviews with family members and information from the Army Criminal Investigative Division.
Both documents were obtained recently by The News Tribune through separate public-record requests.