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After police caught him with more than 4 ounces of marijuana in his parents' home in December, Alex Winterhalter swapped drugs and started smoking synthetic pot.
According to his friends, Winterhalter figured it was the best way to keep getting high -- without getting in trouble again.
Winterhalter, 22, apparently paid for that mistake with his life.
On April 26, the police were called to Winterhalter's home in Maple Grove again. They found him in the basement, bleeding from a single gunshot to the head. Police initially suspected suicide. But after a four-month investigation, police recently concluded that the shooting was an accident, brought on from an "altered state of mind caused by chemicals," according to a report made public last week.
Winterhalter's death is one of more than 20 that have been linked to the use of synthetic drugs, according to the Star Tribune's continuing investigation of the business. It is the second such death in Minnesota. A 19-year-old man died last spring after ingesting a so-called research chemical at a party in Blaine.
The drugs, which are marketed as "legal" alternatives to drugs such as cocaine and marijuana, are dangerously unpredictable. Test results of 30 synthetic drugs bought by the newspaper revealed wide variations in chemical makeup and potency, greatly increasing the chances of an accidental overdose, according to experts who reviewed the newspaper's research.
Winterhalter's parents insist that synthetic drugs played no role in their son's death, even though his father, Randall Winterhalter, told police that his son used synthetic pot in the past. Randall Winterhalter also told police he was not surprised to find out that Alex had an opened packet of synthetic marijuana in his pocket at the time of his death, police records show.
Alex Winterhalter's friends say he was a heavy user of synthetic marijuana. One friend saw him smoke it the night he died while they were drinking at a bar. Cara Severson, who had been dating Winterhalter for more than a year, told police that she saw him smoke it four or five times over the course of that final evening. He also consumed a fair amount of alcohol, with his blood alcohol level well above the legal driving limit at the time of his death, police records show.
"The stuff was bad news for him combined with alcohol," said detective Dominic Wareham, the lead investigator in the case. "There really was nothing to suggest that he killed himself on purpose."
'Sick' of legal trouble
Winterhalter's problems with drugs and alcohol go back at least five years, with three convictions since 2007. Winterhalter was still on probation for a marijuana conviction when police received a tip that he was selling marijuana out of his parents' home in December. Police sent the case to the county attorney for criminal charges just a few weeks before Winterhalter died.
Sandra Kim, who called Winterhalter her best "guy friend" since eighth grade, said he started using synthetic marijuana because he thought it was legal. She said he was "sick" of seeing how illegal drugs were screwing up his life.
"He wanted to get his life straight," Kim said.
Winterhalter was also receiving substance-abuse counseling in the six weeks before he died, police records show.
Severson told police that Winterhalter used synthetic pot virtually every time they were together. She said he called it "potpourri" and smoked it out of a pipe.
Kim said Winterhalter probably bought "the most potent" synthetic pot he could find.
"When he was smoking weed, he was smoking it and smoking it," Kim said. "He would've had a tolerance for that."
The day before he died, Winterhalter landed a job at a local Jimmie John's. He later celebrated with some friends at a Maple Grove bar. Dustin McKain, a friend since childhood, said he watched Winterhalter smoke synthetic pot that night.
Severson, who was not at the bar, met up with Winterhalter around midnight. They rented a movie and headed to his parents' house, where he had a room in the basement.
Severson said it was a wild ride, telling police that Winterhalter was going as fast as 60 miles per hour on quiet residential streets. Severson told police Winterhalter often became overconfident when he drank and smoked synthetic pot. She said the drug also made him act stupid, slow and "not with it."
'Would have died three times'
Winterhalter's behavior turned even more dangerous when they reached his bedroom. While his parents slept upstairs, the two sat on his bed and drank beers. Then he pulled out a gun and started playing with it, Severson told police.
The gun scared her, but he wouldn't put it away. "I wonder what it would feel like to get shot," she recalled saying.
Winterhalter had just one bullet in the revolver. He would spin the chamber and pull the trigger, sometimes while the gun was pointed at himself, sometimes while it was pointed at her, Severson told police.
At one point, he looked at the gun and said: "Dang, I would have died three times," she told police.
At 4:23 a.m., with Severson's head close to his, Winterhalter squeezed the trigger one last time. Severson heard a bang. The bullet passed through Winterhalter's jaw and brain before landing in a bedroom wall. Severson told police she felt it whiz by her head.
The shot woke Winterhalter's parents, who told police that their son had not been feeling suicidal.
Randall and Janet Winterhalter declined to be interviewed for this story. In an e-mail, they maintained that their son's death was not linked to synthetic pot and that they do not believe he was "using any such chemicals at the time of his death."
Detective Wareham, whose duties include working as a liaison officer at Osseo Junior High School, said he will use the tragic story to warn students about the dangers of synthetic drugs.
"Hopefully, some kids will get wide-eyed hearing what I saw," Wareham said. "I saw him, and the mom and dad, and the girlfriend, and the effects [his violent death] had on them."
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482
For previous Star Tribune stories about the rise in synthetic drug use, go to startribune.com/lethaldose.
• Retailers unsuccessfully tried to block a law on substances that mimic pot and LSD.
• Designer drugs can be purchased easily online, leading users to believe they are safer than street drugs. But the chemicals can be unpredictable --and disastrous.
• Synthetic drugs are widely sold as bath salts and incense. But lab tests reveal substances that can kill.