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 McClatchy Newspapers.
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 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 McClatchy Newspapers 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.
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.
Samples claimed Stewart pushed her to the ground, and she said she was leaving the state to stay with her mother.
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