Could Robert Wone Have Been Drugged?

Perspective from a Forensic Post-Mortem Toxicologist

Among the puzzles at the center of the Robert Wone murder mystery are medical questions of what chemical agents might have been used with or without Mr. Wone’s consent to render him in a condition the coroner termed, “…alive but incapacitated.”

In response to a recent post, a reader offered this comment and, relevant here, question. His/her comment is worth repeating

I would not say that I know Joe and Victor well, but I have known them for many years in various capacities (professional, neighbor, and bar acquaintances). They are kind, soft-spoken, and friendly. My over-riding concern is this key principle: innocent until proven guilty. Personally, I find it much more convincing that Wone was murdered by an intruder than that either of these two guys was complicit in any way.

My co-editors and I have heard sentiments like these before and always welcome them. We begin from a presumption of innocence of the accused. In the coming days I hope to address intruder theory v. the time line. And, to the best of our knowledge, none of us ever knew or have even met any of the defendants before – although Washington being the small town that it is, one never truly knows. Anonymous goes on to ask:

the toxicology reports are all negative. I cannot believe that there is a drug that could have been injected into the victim that would not show some traces in his blood. Where is that evidence? I see the blog entry from David claiming that ghb would not show up, but (a) he asserts that ghb would have been given orally (so why are there needle marks?), (b) I frankly do not believe it would not show up in the toxicology report (can someone point to scientific evidence of this?) ,and (c) how much would have been given to render the victim unconscious so quickly?

Good questions all. In fact there’s been lots of back and forth, on this and other sites, with claims of what could be injected, what can’t be tested, etc. Not being a physician (just a lowly journalist) I turned to someone with experience in this area.

Dr. R. B.* has over 40 years of experience in post-mortem toxicology, having served a combined 23 years as chief medical examiner’s toxicologist in two mid-Atlantic states. Dr. B. is a guy who has seen his share of tragedy and trauma, and recently shared his thoughts on the case. (btw: the quotes are real, taken from audio recording during our interview.)

“There’s no single slate of tests you run,” Dr. B began; “…it all depends on what you know and what you suspect.” In Robert Wone’s case the coroner, Dr. Lois Goslinoski, admits in the original affidavit: “…there are various incapacitating or paralytic drugs for which no tests were run as there was not early indication – in light of the statements that Price, Zaborsky and War gave to the police – that Mr. Wone may have been injected with any such drugs while at the Swann Street residence.”

The question of drugs not showing traces that could be found rests heavily on what the coroner suspects at the time. “If a body comes in from a car crash, catastrophic trauma, I’m likely to test for alcohol, PCP and the like. But if it’s a suspicious death, no obvious cause, I’m going to run a whole different assay.”

Dr. Goslinoski details the specific agents tested; without running the full list (look it up if you like, page 6) Dr. B says it’s clear a standard but “…not nearly exhaustive…” slate of tests.

Would GHB show up, as David and Anonymous ask? “Yes, if you’re looking for it at the right time,” says Dr. B. However, the better question is what tests that weren’t run. “Anyone with any medical knowledge can find dozens of things that can kill you; it’s not a question of what was used. It’s all about what you’re looking for.”

Pesticides. Digitalis. Tricyclic antidepressants. Chlorinated hydrocarbons. Just four of the depressing list of agents Dr. B. rattled off that can be used to kill, slow or incapacitate a victim. Would you find them in an autopsy? Depends: only if you’re looking. What determines what to look for? The moment, the body, the police report; all the hundred things that come in at the moment a body comes in on the examing table.

Can a victim be re-tested? “Depends,” says Dr. B. again. “Sometimes the remains (the viscera of a body) are bagged up and stored within the chest before burial. Sometimes they’re just burned, leaving nothing but a shell. Sometimes exhumation works. You can do it, but better to test samples. It all depends on how big the office is and how much work there is.”

Were samples of tissue/fluid of Mr. Wone kept by the D.C. Medical Examiners office kept? Unknown. Is the office over-worked? Not for me to say. But we can report the office, headed by still-interim Chief Medical Examiner Marielydie Y. Pierre-Louis has a total staff of 87 – only 6 of which are medical officers.

Were samples (tissues, fluids, etc. stored in formaldehyde) of Mr. Wone kept by the DC Medical Examier? Unknown at this point. A key point which needs answering. What was the condition of Mr. Wone’s remains at burial, assuming no samples were kept? Again, unclear. What paralytic agents might turn up if Mr. Wone’s remains were exhumed? Depends.

One last focus. there has been lots of discussion of ketamine** here and elsewhere. “The needle punctures are curious…” says Dr. B, emphasizing a common theme. He goes on to say that large-scale medical examiners would likely have taken samples of the injection sites for testing. From the coroner’s report, that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Ketamine – KHole. Many have asked if K could have been the substance injected at those 6 mysterious needle puncture sites. The answer is, without doubt, yes. While often snorted, ketamine can be injected. However, most advocates say IM (intra-muscular) injections are strongly recommended over IV (intraveneous) for the simple reason of time and effect.

“No prizes for guessing that intravenously injected Ketamine kicks in straight away, is a shit load more powerful, and ends a lot faster (after just 10 minutes) suggests this New Zealand poster. His/her comments echoed throughout the web: ketamine injected directly into the blood system (as Mr. Wone’s puncture wounds would indicate) would render someone virtually incapacitated within seconds. Literally: within seconds – before the needle could be removed, perhaps.

So. Could something (ketamine or another paralytic agent) have been injected into Robert Wone as to render him helpless within moments? Yes. Could that agent have escaped detection without a heads-up by the well-intentioned coroner? Yes. Could Mr. Wone have died as an indirect result of injections of some unknown agent, rendering him unable to fight back against the three stab wounds? Undoubtedly.

It’s not a matter of what’s possible. In this case, as in all murder cases, it’s a matter of what you ask and when you ask it.

* The M.E. I spoke with talked on condition of attribution only. I will entertain all direct communication with me regarding this source, and his/her willingness to go on the record.
**The topic of ketamine has a particular pungence for me. Today in the mail I opened a bill from our vet’s office: a bill for the euthansaia of our beloved greyhound Scout. She was sent into her eternal sleep December 20th; the bill clearly indicates that ketamine was administered to put her
at ease and relax her before her catheterization and eventual euthanasia. I am not in any way happy to entertain idle chatter about ketamine on this site, but am willing to explore the sober possibilities.

– Posted by Doug

9 comments for “Could Robert Wone Have Been Drugged?

  1. Anonymous
    02/06/2009 at 9:58 PM

    Thanks for your blog. You’re doing the job Nancy Grace won’t do — both because the victim wasn’t a pretty white woman and because the accused are well-lawyered — and doing it more responsibly and interestingly.

  2. Anonymous
    02/07/2009 at 11:48 AM

    The autopsy results indicate that Mr. Wone had “puncture wounds” on his “neck, chest, foot and hand.” These are not typical intraveneous injection sites. This would, most likely, indicate intramuscular. Unless someone was extordinarily skilled at finding very small veins, intraveneous injections would be incredibly difficult in these areas. In addition, it would take a lot of time to do this. Not to forget, Mr Wone showed signs of suffication. There were small, broken blood vessels in his eyes.

    Regarding ketamine, it can also be ingested. Perhaps, Mr. Wone was orally sedated enough to subdue him with a pillow after he retired to bed. At which point, he was then administered larger doses of the drug intramuscularly.

    However, whoever…..this is just a tragedy.

    • NYer
      07/31/2009 at 11:12 AM

      I agree that if RW had been sedated, it must have been before without his knowledge before he retired to bed, as well as after, as Anon posits above. One of the problems I had piecing this together was how the culprit(s) could have effectively snuck up on RW, and incapacitated him, without RW waking up and putting up a fight or resisting in some way. I believe that RW had to be drugged somehow before going to bed, for the prosecution’s theory to be tenable.

  3. Anonymous
    02/07/2009 at 8:19 PM

    the plice reports indicate robert wone was wearing his mouth guard when the rescue peraonnel found him. personally, I find this rather odd. who carries their mouth guard around unless they know in advance they will be sleeping somewhere else. this leads me to believe robert wne may had made arrangements to stay over prior to the morning of the day of his death. he left his home with his mouth guard. is there any evidence showing wone arranged the sleep-over in advance of the day of his death? and if this is the case, then “too late to drive home” doesn’t add up.

    • CDinDC
      07/31/2009 at 11:30 AM

      Anonymous says: “unless they know in advance they will be sleeping somewhere else”

      Robert planned to stay over in advance. In fact, his wife helped him pack his bag for the stay.

      “‘too late to drive home’ doesn’t add up” Robert didn’t drive in. He took the metro in. He would have had to catch the metro somewhere around 10:30pm and have his wife wait for him in a desolate metro parking area very late at night.

  4. Anonymous
    02/07/2009 at 8:34 PM

    #3, yes, if you’ve read some of the earlier news articles, this has already been covered. Wone had made plans in advance to stay over at Price’s home because he had a continuing legal ed class and work that night. His wife knew about it and thought it was a great idea since they didn’t drive to work.

  5. Anonymous
    02/08/2009 at 9:42 AM

    (1) What if some or all the punctures or needle marks weren’t to inject anything, merely some sort of stimulation?

    (2) Doesn’t the number and variety of locations of punctures or needle points seem a bit excessive? Especially given the timeline.

    (3) Could the coroners, in some sort of lab confusion, been counting their own injection points?

    (4) Why assume that either the drugs and/or the needle punctures took place at Swann Street? It seems casual to presume that because someone died at point x (or a body was reported at point x), therefore everything unusual took place at point x.

    • CDinDC
      07/31/2009 at 11:53 AM

      Anonymous says: “(3) Could the coroners, in some sort of lab confusion, been counting their own injection points? ”

      Medical Examiners and/or Coroners do not “inject” or pierce the body for any reason during an autopsy. Other than to open a body and to stitch a body up after internal examination, no needle is used on the surface of the body during examination. Blood samples are usually taken from the femeral artery (found deep within the body cavity), the pericardium (a sac that surrounds the heart) and the ventricles (heart chambers). You can refer to the “Forensic Autopsy Performance Standards” published by the National Associates of Medical Examiner’s for further information.

  6. Anonymous
    02/08/2009 at 12:32 PM

    Re the puncture wounds, Robert Wone’s wife cleared with the authorities that RW had not received any injections or was not taking any medications that would require him to receive injections, up to the day of his death. Unless they were doling out injections at his workplace, he most likely receieved the injections at Swann Street.

    The coroner’s office would do a complete scan of the body prior to taking any blood samples, adn those samples would be collected from a main vein, usually during the internal examination. It’s not likely they would go jabbing the deceased’s body in misc. places, like the feet, hands, etc.

    His body would then go to a funeral home to be prepared for burial AFTER the autopsy, at which time an arterial injection would have been given to inject embalming fluid (if buried). No puncture wounds in the feet, hands, chest or neck at that time either.

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