ORLANDO, Fla. — When a woman called 911 earlier this year and begged deputies to rescue her from the five crazed young people destroying her home, her fear was palpable: “They’re all going psycho … help us, please.”
Here’s what deputies found when they arrived:
A young man in the front yard was convulsing, grunting, reaching for objects in the air that weren’t there, and, as one deputy described, in a “zombie state of mind.”
Inside the Orange County home, a 17-year-old had wrapped herself in a vacuum cord so tightly that she couldn’t move. She was convulsing, and her eyes were rolled back in her head.
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Seventeen-year-old Krystopher Sansone was unconscious on the floor.
Another teen was standing in the living room in a semiconscious state, sweating profusely, and seemed to have “great strength” when deputies restrained him.
On the porch, a teenage girl was sitting on a swing, unable to talk to deputies.
All five were hospitalized, three in critical condition. Krystopher later died.
A few hours earlier, the teens had snorted so-called bath salts off a $10 bill.
Bath salts — synthetic drugs made of substances perceived to mimic the effects of cocaine, LSD or methamphetamine — are illegal in Florida (and in Washington state).
But anyone can buy the drugs online, and recent arrests in Central Florida show people are still manufacturing the drugs.
Federal authorities say bath salts — marketed under names such as “Ivory Wave,” “Purple Wave” and “Vanilla Sky” — are increasingly popular among teens and young adults, as is synthetic marijuana, commonly known as “K2” or “Spice.”
The drugs are marketed as legal highs, and manufacturers often label the items “not intended for human consumption” in an attempt to skirt drug laws.
Controlling — and banning — synthetic drugs has proved challenging for federal and state authorities. As soon as one substance is banned, manufacturers change their recipes.
Since 2009, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has seen more than 200 varieties of synthetic drugs, said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Alan Santos.
Seminole County undercover deputies who have bought the drugs said they’ve sent the items to a state lab only to find out the chemicals in those products were not specifically banned under Florida law.
So far, synthetic-drug abuse in Central Florida has not risen to the epidemic proportions of prescription-drug abuse.
In 2011, Florida’s poison centers received 655 reports related to bath salts and synthetic marijuana across the state. After the drugs were banned by state law, the number of cases dropped to 468 in 2012.
But that doesn’t mean synthetic-drug use is waning, authorities say.
“Synthetic drugs are definitely where we see such a tremendous growth and anticipate there to continue to be tremendous growth,” said Danny Banks, the special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Orlando division.
In September, Marion County detectives uncovered a large synthetic-marijuana operation running out of a former doughnut shop.
In May, Volusia County deputies said they dismantled a drug ring responsible for distributing bath salts and synthetic marijuana.
Synthetic drugs have been linked to other crimes and deaths in Central Florida.
In October 2012, 18-year-old Anthony Moffa told troopers he took K2 before getting into his parents’ car, drifting into the bike lane and killing Forrest Flaniken Jr., a Wycliffe Bible Translators executive who was training for a triathlon.
In August, Orlando police investigating the drowning of 16-year-old Brian Simkulak discovered the teen had taken a synthetic drug known as “25C” shortly before he walked into a lake in his backyard. The medical examiner ruled that synthetic-drug intoxication was a contributing factor in his death.
Law-enforcement and medical professionals say one of the most alarming characteristics of synthetic drugs is that there’s no consistency in the production of the products. That means users have no idea what they are getting.
“These folks are treating our kids like guinea pigs,” said the DEA’s Santos.
And medical professionals say the drugs have some alarming behavioral side effects.
“Of all the kids that end up in the ER with taking these drugs, about 12 percent end up in psych hospitals,” Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner Jan Garavaglia said. “And it just doesn’t go away. There are reports of people having weeks of abnormal behavior and psychosis.”
Josef Thundiyil, an emergency medicine physician and medical toxicologist at Orlando Regional Medical Center, said it’s difficult to measure how many patients come into the ER because they took synthetic drugs.
Thundiyil said the patients who disclose that they have taken synthetic drugs can suffer from psychosis, elevated blood pressure and severe paranoia.
Garavaglia’s office has seen at least six deaths in the last two years related to bath salts or synthetic marijuana.
Though Garavaglia ultimately ruled synthetic drugs were to blame for Krystopher’s death, her office initially couldn’t detect the drug the teen’s system.
Garavaglia’s office ended up taking a sample of the drug off the $10 bill the teens had snorted from and sent that off for testing. Then she was able to detect trace amounts of a synthetic drug in the teen’s system.
For Tim and Lucy Sansone, the grief of losing their oldest child — a high-school senior who tucked his little sister into bed each night — was overwhelming.
Today, many of their questions about their son’s death, and the investigation, remain unanswered.
The Sansones knew Krystopher used drugs and they did everything they could to get him help and to stop the abuse: They strip-searched him, bought their own drug-test kits and had him placed under the Marchman Act, a Florida law that allows relatives to obtain a judge’s order to send a drug addict to treatment.
But synthetic drugs often do not show up on standard drug-testing kits, leaving parents like the Sansones feeling powerless. They think that’s one reason the drug is so appealing: Users know they likely won’t be caught.
The Sansones know it was Krystopher’s choice to take drugs Feb. 10, but they are still looking for someone to be held accountable.
“Nothing that we do … is going to bring our son back,” Lucy Sansone said. “But we as a community should be working toward getting those people off the streets.”