Timothy Brueggeman of Hayward, Wis., had a history of insomnia and once had crashed his pickup while taking the sleep aid.
DULUTH - After Hayward, Wis., electrician Timothy Brueggeman froze to death while sleepwalking barefoot in his underwear Monday night, authorities were initially baffled.
"How in the hell can a guy walk out in 20-below zero and not wake up?" Sawyer County Chief Deputy Tim Zeigle said he asked himself. Going through Brueggeman's bedroom, investigators found a possible answer -- a bottle of Ambien.
The most-prescribed sleep aid in the United States has helped millions, but it has also has been linked to hundreds of cases of sleepwalking, sleep-driving and even sleep-shoplifting. Such cases led to a class-action suit against Sanofi-Aventis. The drugmaker, which maintains that Ambien is safe when taken correctly and not mixed with alcohol or other drugs, didn't respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
While many insomnia sufferers use the drug without bizarre side-effects, the 51-year-old Brueggeman was not one of them, according to his family and friends.
After taking Ambien and going to bed one night last summer, Brueggeman drove his pickup without waking up, according to longtime friend Ed Lesniak.
"He drove into the side of his own garage, knocked a neighbor's hanging plant off the eave of their house, and came to rest against a tree," Lesniak said. "The next day he didn't know what happened."
Brueggeman's mother, Geraldine Brueggeman, of Bloomington, said she was so unnerved by that episode that she made her son promise never to take the drug again. She said Wednesday that he had been plagued by insomnia for 10 years and apparently went back to the drug or never stopped.
It could be a month or more before toxicology test results are known.
Zeigle, of the sheriff's office, said alcohol also "may have been a factor" in Brueggeman's death. Geraldine Brueggeman said several empty light beer cans were found in the garbage. Lesniak, with whom Brueggeman lived for a time after going through a divorce, said his friend sometimes drank while taking Ambien.
"He was like a lot of us," Lesniak said. "He'd stop off after work or have a couple throughout the evening and then take a pill to go to sleep."
Blood on the snow
Brueggeman was living in a duplex with his 23-year-old son Keaton, who awoke Tuesday to discover his father was missing.
"Both trucks were there, and Tim's clothes and boots were there, but he wasn't," said Lesniak, who was on the telephone with the son as police searched. The elder Brueggeman apparently cut himself on something while sleepwalking, because drops of blood were found in several places, including on the floor mat of Brueggeman's pickup.
"He kept the keys under the dash, but he apparently wasn't coherent enough to start the truck," Lesniak said.
Geraldine Brueggeman said the other tenant of the duplex reported that someone banged on their door in the middle of the night, and they saw a figure running away when they looked outside. "They didn't know it was him," the mother said.
A trail of bare footprints led 190 yards through the snow, to the spot where Brueggeman collapsed and died.
While Ambien has been connected to many cases of people doing strange things in their sleep, a person wouldn't have to be on the drug to sleepwalk in snow, said Dr. Michel Cramer Bornemann, of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center at Hennepin County Medical Center.
"With sleep, the sensory cortex [of the brain] is inactivated," he said. "People who sleepwalk can bump into things or walk on a very cold surface and not be able to sense it." In the Upper Midwest alone in recent years, several children -- who are more prone to sleepwalking than adults -- have died by wandering asleep outside in winter, he said.
Cramer Bornemann said that he considers Ambien a relatively safe drug -- but one that must be used with great care.
Lesniak said he will miss his friend, for whom funeral arrangements are pending.
"He had a happy personality and tried to make everyone laugh," Lesniak said.
Larry Oakes • 1-800-266-9648