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Florida man was on drugs when he slept, leaving nonverbal passenger dying in hot van: cops


A Florida man has been hit with manslaughter charges after a month-long investigation found him responsible for the death of a nonverbal passenger with Down syndrome who was stuck inside a hot van for up to three hours.

Authorities said Joshua Russell was on drugs when he decided to take a nap in the car and leave John LaPointe, a 35-year-old man with the cognitive ability of a 1-year-old, sweating in the backseat with his seatbelt on.

“Let’s call it what it is. This poor guy baked in that car,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a news conference on Friday.

The horrifying incident happened in the afternoon of May 9 in Seminole, a city east of Tampa, where temperatures inside the van reached about 125 degrees, according to police.

The 26-year-old suspect worked at the group home where LaPointe lived and he had taken the victim to a doctor’s appointment that day. Russell decided to stop by his house on the way back to take two packages of kratom, a plant-based substance that is often used as a recreational drug, authorities said in a news release.

Gualtieri said the suspect admitted to wrapping a large amount of kratom in toilet paper and swallowing it so he could feel “awake and alert.”

Russell then went back to the car and drove away, but he began feeling tired and nauseous during the drive and decided to head back home and park his 2006 Toyota Sienna minivan on his driveway, according to the release.

Police said the suspect turned off the engine and ended up falling asleep while LaPointe was sitting in the back in sweltering heat. Russell woke up two to three hours later “covered in sweat” and noticed the victim was “slumped over and unresponsive,” authorities said. He tried performing CPR on LaPointe, but the passenger was already dead, according to police.

The suspect then went back inside his home and got a gun with the intention to kill himself over the incident, the release states. Russell started driving again and called his mother, who alerted police.

Officers tracked him down and arrested the same day on a charge of carrying a concealed firearm.

A medical examiner’s report later revealed LaPointe died of hyperthermia. Further investigation by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office determined Russell’s actions caused the man’s death.

“It had to be absolutely horrific in that car for that man,” Gualtieri told reporters.

The sheriff urged the public to be careful with substances that can impair one’s judgement, even if they are legal.

Russell was charged with one count of aggravated manslaughter of a disabled adult and is being held on $50,000 bond.