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Caretaker sleeps while disabled man dies in hot car, deputies say

A dose of kratom caused the caretaker to fall asleep for hours inside a hot minivan with the disabled man in the back seat, investigators said.
Joshua Russell, 26, faces a charge of aggravated manslaughter, according to deputies. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
Published Sep. 20
Updated Sep. 21

SEMINOLE — An assisted living facility worker now faces a charge of aggravated manslaughter after deputies say he fell asleep in a hot minivan from ingesting kratom in May and let the disabled man he was caring for die in the heat.

Joshua Russell, now 26, of St. Petersburg, worked at Crossroads of Pinellas, an assisted living facility at 12986 96th Ave. N in Seminole, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

He took John LaPointe, 35, to a doctor’s appointment on May 9, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a Friday news conference. LaPointe had Down syndrome, was nonverbal and had the intellectual capacity of a 1-year-old, the sheriff said.

After the doctor’s appointment, Russell drove the company’s Toyota Sienna minivan to his house at 13864 Bermuda Drive, where he “parachuted” kratom — meaning he took two packets of kratom powder, wrapped them in toilet paper and swallowed them. He left LaPoint in the backseat, still wearing his seatbelt.

Kratom is a tree native to Southeast Asia, according to drugabuse.gov. It is a non-regulated drug and is widely available.

Russell then drove back to the living facility. But the kratom caused him to feel nauseated and drowsy, so deputies said he drove the van back home and parked it outside. Then he reclined the driver’s seat and fell asleep. He left the vehicle turned off, Gualtieri said, and only cracked one window for air.

When he awoke two to three hours later, he was covered in sweat and found LaPointe non-responsive. He tried to revive LaPointe, the sheriff said, but couldn’t. Then he went back inside his house to retrieve a gun and intended to take his own life, deputies said.

He called his mother, who also worked at the assisted living facility, and told her what happened. He drove to meet her with LaPointe still buckled in the back. Once they met, she called 911.

Rescue workers declared LaPointe dead. By the time deputies arrived, Russell had already gone. When they found him nearby, he said he would kill himself because of what happened. He was arrested that day on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon. He posted bail and was freed May 14.

The new charge was added after the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office ruled LaPointe died of hyperthermia, suffering from an extremely high body temperature. Investigators estimate the temperature inside the van reached 125 degrees.

Russell was taken back into custody Friday morning. His bail was set at $50,000.


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