Researcher did not die of overdose, autopsy says

SUN EXCLUSIVE

Allergic reaction, not bupe, killed UM pharmacologist

  • Carrie John, center, died after apparently injecting herself with buprenorphine. Her mother, Marianne Woessner, is at left and Carrie's sister, Jennifer John, is at right.
Carrie John, center, died after apparently injecting herself… (Family photo )
November 13, 2009|By Scott Calvert | scott.calvert@baltsun.com

University of Maryland pharmacologist Carrie John died from an allergic reaction and not because she injected a seemingly tainted batch of the narcotic buprenorphine, according to the state medical examiner.

"There was nothing in her system to cause her death, no drugs," said Dr. Zabiullah Ali, the pathologist who investigated her death Sept. 27.

"It was an allergic reaction to something she injected," Ali said Thursday in response to questions from The Baltimore Sun. "But what it is, we don't know."

Ali's finding is consistent with a police lab analysis of a syringe that John's fiance, Clinton B. McCracken, gave to police. That analysis turned up no trace of drugs, according to a report obtained by The Sun.

The results suggest that McCracken, 33, might have unwittingly bought phony narcotics. "Apparently, it was not buprenorphine," said Ali, who has ruled John's death an accident.

Together, the analyses change the picture of what occurred that Sunday in John's rented Ridgely's Delight rowhouse, which the 29-year-old shared with McCracken, a fellow pharmacologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Her death stunned the school, where the two postdoctoral fellows did brain research and she studied drug abuse. Friends and relatives expressed shock that their unkempt house was filled with marijuana plants and that McCracken had admitted to police that the couple sometimes used narcotics together.

McCracken, who faces drug charges, told police that on Sept. 27, John injected herself with buprenorphine that he had ordered online from the Philippines, according to court records. He said he and John soaked a 2 mg pill in water, filtered it, then filled two syringes with the solution.

Before McCracken could inject himself, John began to have trouble breathing, charging documents state. He reached for her asthma inhaler and called 911 when her distress persisted. Later he told police that he and John "thought they could control the morphine and buprenorphine" and said he must have received a bad batch of buprenorphine.

Ali speculated that John's deadly reaction could have been caused by "filler material" in the pills that McCracken thought contained buprenorphine, also known as bupe. The drug is often used to wean addicts off heroin.

But Ali said toxicology results did not pinpoint the cause of her anaphylactic reaction, which constricts the airways and was worsened by her asthma. "It would be very difficult to find out, if not impossible," he said, "because there are thousands and thousands of substances you can have an allergic reaction to."

The Baltimore Police Department lab also found "no CDS" in "one clear syringe with clear liquid" that McCracken gave to officers at the emergency room where John was pronounced dead about an hour after the 911 call, a confidential police analysis obtained by The Sun states. CDS stands for "controlled dangerous substance," a collective term for drugs.

The lab stops testing "once they determine it's nothing illegal," said Agent Donny Moses, a police spokesman. "They wouldn't even tell us [if] it's pudding or baking soda."

Asked why he did not test the contents of the syringe, Ali said police took it. Moreover, he said, his office examines a deceased person's body and not drugs found at a scene because there is no way to be sure that someone took those drugs.

Informed by The Sun of the medical examiner's finding, John's mother said she found it "comforting." "I can't change the fact she's dead," Marianne Woessner said by phone from North Carolina, "but she didn't die of a drug overdose." She had assumed it was a contaminant rather than a narcotic that killed her daughter. Woessner said her daughter was allergic to mice and rat dander, and had to curtail research activities because of the condition.

A Baltimore grand jury indicted McCracken on drug charges Oct. 26. The most serious include possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of two prescription narcotics, the stimulant methylphenidate (Ritalin) and the anti-anxiety drug clonazepam (Klonopin).

According to the indictment, McCracken "did conspire with" John to possess the drugs with intent to distribute.

The day John died, police who entered the home found an array of drugs, including pills, "huge gardens" of marijuana nurtured by elaborate lighting and vents, as well as "more than 20 bongs in all shapes, sizes and configurations."

Friends and colleague have said the pair seemed to be thriving personally and professionally, and appear to have led a secret life.

McCracken told police that in recent years he had bought "various narcotics for recreational use" from the New Mikee Online Pharmacy, a Web site in the Philippines. He said the drugs included morphine and OxyContin.

The couple met in 2000 as graduate students at Wake Forest University. Last June, McCracken moved into John's Dover Street house after landing a research position at Maryland. Before that he was at the University of Pittsburgh. He is no longer employed by Maryland.

McCracken, who is free on bail, has declined to comment. He is scheduled to be arraigned Dec. 2.

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