Crime

Man with Down syndrome left to die in hot van as driver passed out on drugs, cops say

Joshua David Lee Russell
Joshua David Lee Russell Pinellas County Sheriff's Office

A former employee of a Pinellas County group home was arrested Friday after deputies said he took a psychoactive herbal substance and fell asleep in a hot van while a resident of the home with Down syndrome died in the back seat.

Joshua David Lee Russell, 26, of St. Petersburg, was arrested Friday morning on one count of aggravated manslaughter of a disabled adult. He was booked into Pinellas County Jail but released around midnight Saturday after posting a $50,000 bond.

The arrest came more than four months after 35-year-old John LaPointe was found dead in a 2006 Toyota Sienna that neared 125 degrees on a May afternoon. Russell, who had been driving the van, took LaPointe to a doctor’s appointment May 9 and later stopped at his home in Seminole, Florida, where deputies said he ingested two packages of Kratom and quickly felt tired and nauseous.

Kratom, which police say may be used as a recreational drug, is not considered a controlled substance under federal standards but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency describes it as a “drug of concern.”

Russell tried driving LaPointe back to the group home. But he turned around, parked the van in his driveway and shut it off, deputies said.

Russell napped in the van for up to three hours, and woke up covered in sweat. LaPointe, who is non-verbal, remained strapped into the backseat. He was slumped over and did not respond to CPR. The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office later ruled that LaPointe died from hyperthermia.

After realizing LaPointe had died, Russell grabbed a gun from his home and began to drive with the man still in the van, deputies said. He called his mother, who also worked at the group home, and she talked him into pulling over. She called police, who responded about 5:35 p.m. to a report of an unresponsive man in a vehicle.

Deputies learned that Russell had left the area with the gun and told them he would kill himself. He was originally arrested on a charge of carrying a concealed firearm, police said.

  Comments