Bangor man on bath salts dies after arrest, police say

Posted July 25, 2011, at 11:40 a.m.
Last modified July 25, 2011, at 7:18 p.m.
Ralph Willis
Bangor Police Department
Ralph Willis

BANGOR, Maine — A Bangor man who was arrested Friday night after running around and yelling at people on Center Street admitted to using “bath salts,” a newly outlawed synthetic drug, and later died at the hospital, police said Monday.

“He said he was on them and needed to get off them,” Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards said. “He was running around these people and screaming. He was delusional and paranoid.”

The body of Ralph E. Willis, 32, was taken to the state medical examiner’s office in Augusta. An autopsy was performed Monday but was inconclusive pending toxicology test results, the sergeant said. “It could be a while” before those tests are complete, he said.

Willis had “no visible signs of trauma” when arrested even though he ran into a truck while attempting to flee after getting into a scuffle with the arresting officer, Edwards said.

Police were called to Center Street at about 6:45 p.m. Friday to assist with the removal of Willis from an area near Brookings-Smith Funeral Home. Officer Brian Smith arrived and saw Willis screaming at a group of people. He “reported that Willis started to charge at him and shout with a closed fist,” which led to “a brief physical altercation between the two” on the trunk of Smith’s police cruiser, Edwards said.

Willis “managed to break off one of the radio antennas from the police car and swung it into the back windshield, causing it to break,” the sergeant said. “Willis then fled on foot from the officer and ran into a truck that was exiting Brookings-Smith Funeral Home, at which time Officer Smith was able to control him and place him on the ground.”

The fleeing Willis “just ran into the side of the truck” and didn’t appear injured, Edwards said.

Smith charged Willis with disorderly conduct, criminal mischief and refusing to submit to arrest. Officer Chad Foley took him to the Penobscot County Jail, but he did not stay there, Penobscot County Deputy Chief Troy Morton said Monday.

“He was acting paranoid and delusional when he was interacting with staff and was yelling at staffers,” he said. “They felt he should have been evaluated” at a local hospital, and called Bangor police to return to the jail.

“He was uncooperative and we required Bangor to come back and have him mentally evaluated,” Morton said. “They decided he should be taken by ambulance, not by police car.”

Willis was taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center just after 8 p.m. and died there at around 9:40 p.m., Edwards said.

He said the criminal investigation division of the Bangor Police Department is investigating the case. Detective Dave Bushey is the lead investigator.

Willis has been in and out of jail this year, according to court listings printed in the Bangor Daily News.

He was convicted of possessing hypodermic apparatuses in February and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. In mid-May he was convicted of two counts of theft by unauthorized taking or transfer and sent to jail for 60 days for each count. He also was given a 24-hour concurrent sentence for disorderly conduct in May.

“Bath salts,” a synthetic drug that became illegal in Maine at the beginning of July, usually contain mephedrone or Methylenedioxypyrovalerone, also known as MDPV. Police, doctors and emergency responders have reported signs of paranoia, hallucinations, convulsions and psychotic behavior in users of the drug.

Dr. Andrew Ehrhard, an emergency room doctor at EMMC, said in June that he was seeing a bath salts overdose every week or so, noting that he was just one of many local ER doctors. He also said the man-made chemicals can cause significant liver damage and increase heart rates to dangerous levels.

“That’s really one of the dangerous side effects,” said Edwards, who stressed that the cause of Willis’ death is not yet known and may have nothing to do with bath salts.

Karen Simone, a toxicologist and director of the New England Poison Control Center in Portland, described bath salts Monday as “a very dangerous drug.”

In addition to people on bath salts doing crazy things such as jumping out windows and cutting themselves, “we’re seeing people with very high heart rates and very high blood pressures … that can lead to death,” Simone said, adding that users of the drug also are overheating. “It’s a stimulant and using drugs like that puts your body into overdrive.”

With Friday’s nearly 100-degree heat, Simone said she would not be surprised if Willis’ death is somehow related to his use of bath salts.

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