Man charged with manslaughter in overdose death of former roommate

A man has been charged with manslaughter after allegedly giving some of his opioid prescription to a former roommate, who overdosed on it.

Members of the Kenai Police Department were called to a residence in Kenai last spring to respond to an “unattended death,” according to a probable cause statement written by Sgt. Paul Cushman. Roland Zumwalt, 32, was pronounced dead by the Kenai Fire Department. He had died from “acute toxic effects of fentanyl,” according the results of a medical examiner report Kenai police received in June 2016, according to the probable cause statement.

Officers found tin foil, a fentanyl patch and a pipe made from a pen in Zumwalt’s room, according to the statement.

“The tin foil had burn marks on it consistent with drug use,” Cushman wrote.

While on scene at the home, officers saw another man there, 67-year-old John Harris, who had a fentanyl patch on his arm. Harris told police he had given Zumwalt two patches left over from when his prescription for it changed to a higher dosage two months prior to Zumwalt’s death, according to the statement.

“I was stupid,” Harris is quoted as saying in the statement. “I should have said, ‘No man, I can’t give you any of my medication ‘cause I don’t know what it’ll do to you.’”

Harris was arrested Feb. 18 on a charge of manslaughter for giving the fentanyl to Zumwalt, according to a Kenai Police press release. The charge was filed in Kenai court the following day.

Kenai police had applied for a search warrant to get information from the Alaska Prescription Drug Monitoring Program in January of this year. The results of that warrant showed that Harris had several fentanyl prescriptions throughout 2016, while Zumwalt didn’t.

Cushman said the delay between the June 2016 medical examiner report containing the cause of death and the search warrant was due to the time it took to complete the investigation.

“After we got the report from the medical examiner’s office, the case was referred to the District Attorney’s Office,” he said. “We work hand in hand with the DA on cases like this.”

Through discussions with the District Attorney’s Office, Cushman said it was determined getting the search warrant would be a good course of action.

Harris’ prescription had changed from 50 micograms to 75 micograms, according to the probable cause statement. He told officers he gave Zumwalt a 25 micogram patch and a 50 micogram patch.

“He told Zumwalt not to take both patches at the same time and to try the 25 (micogram) patch first,” Cushman wrote in the statement.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid similar to morphine used to treat patients with severe or chronic pain, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. However, it’s about 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the institute.

Gov. Bill Walker issued an order earlier this month that officially declared Alaska’s pervasive opioid epidemic a public health disaster.

Harris and Zumwalt had been living a private home in Kenai owned by Sheryl and Perry Neel, Soldotna residents who rent out the home to men coming out of Wildwood Correctional Complex in need of a cheap place to get back on their feet. The couple has been involved in prison ministry for years, Sheryl Neel said, and opened the home a few years ago.

“My husband was a mentor at one time, and we found that it was really hard for men when they got out of prison to start over,” she said. “You know, everything worked against them. They didn’t really have a place to go, they had no money.”

Neel said she and her husband thought it would be nice to get a house they’d be able to afford even if the tenants sometimes couldn’t pay rent, and offer a place to those men. Four men can live in the home at a time, with one room going rent-free to a man who lives there to oversee things, Neel said. The house is not run by a nonprofit or organization and has no official program, but tenants must follow certain rules in order to stay including no drugs, alcohol or firearms, she said.

“We try to give the guys as much freedoms as we can,” Neel said.

The man who oversees the house is not expected to confront tenants when he sees wrongdoing, but is expected to report it to Neel and her husband. If he witnessed something illegal happen, he would report it to police first, she said.

The Neels encourage the men to attend church and to keep in touch with their mentors, she said, but that ultimately “people are going to do what they want to do.”

“We feel really bad for the family,” Neel said.

Affordable housing for people released from prison and working through addiction, like the Neels’ house, is becoming a more recognized need and a growing trend on the Kenai Peninsula.

The Friendship Mission in North Kenai has offered shelter to men over 21 since 2005. Residents must follow general rules, like no alcohol or drugs, in addition to attending church and bible study.

Nuk’it’un, a nonprofit also dedicated to serving men on the peninsula, opened a sober living home on Kalifornsky Beach Road in June 2016. It is not a religious organization, but the tenants must have completed some kind of drug treatment program, like the one offered through Central Peninsula Hospital’s Serenity House Treatment Center. Nuk’it’un, which is Dena’ina for “new moon,” can house 10 men who live with a house manager.

Freedom House is the next transitional home slated to open on the central peninsula. Located in Soldotna and also run by a nonprofit, it will be open to women who will have to sign on for three months at a time and enroll in the house program. Freedom House will also have rules prohibiting alcohol or drugs, and will also have a house manager who lives on site.

Online court records show Harris has pleaded guilty to a number of felony DUI charges in the past. He was arraigned at the Kenai Courthouse on Sunday, and his next hearing is scheduled for March 1.

Manslaughter is a class A felony in Alaska, described as “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly (causing) the death of another person under circumstances not amounting to murder in the first or second degrees,” according to charging documents. It is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, with presumptive ranges of 10–14 years if it is a second felony conviction and 15–20 years for a third felony.

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