Ever since he was a kid, Steven Allen liked to take things apart, see how they worked and put them back together again. “He made a computer for his little brother, just by spare parts that people threw out, one year for Christmas,” recalls Nellie Hencerling, his mom. He was a good kid, she says. Sure, he’d had issues with drugs back when he lived in their hometown of Victoria, but after he moved to Houston in 2012, he seemed to put those behind him. He was married, with a young son, a steady job and a home of his own.
Then, over just a few days in February 2014, Allen’s life unraveled completely. Chastity Graham, Allen’s wife, had only been 18 when she got pregnant with their son, Daemon — and just months into the marriage, she felt like the relationship had fallen apart. On the night that Allen returned home from a trip to California meant to secure him another promotion at work, Graham left him and took 15-month-old Daemon with her. Allen’s mother says the next day was her son’s birthday. He would turn 24.
While Allen wasn’t happy with Graham’s decision, the two were still on good enough terms to keep texting one another. Graham had no idea anything was wrong until a few days later, on Thursday, February 6, when she got a phone call from Allen’s co-worker at 7 a.m. Allen had left work early the day before and hadn’t come back. Allen had stopped returning his mother’s calls, and didn’t reply to any more of Graham’s texts.
Graham was staying with relatives outside of Houston at the time; she let police break into their home to see if Allen was there. She then met up with Hencerling in Houston, and they spent the day frantically searching for Allen. But no one could find him.
At about 4 p.m. on Saturday, February 8 — the same day that Allen was once supposed to hold a barbecue with his mom to celebrate his birthday — an employee at a north Houston Walmart spotted him walking through the store. Allen was pale and sweaty, his eyes “red and bulging,” witnesses said in police reports. There was dried vomit on his shirt. In his right hand, he clutched a can of Ultra Duster, a brand of aerosol cleaner typically sprayed on keyboards to blow dust off the keys. His left hand held two more cans.
While standing in line to check out, Allen put the nozzle of the computer duster to his lips and pulled the trigger.
Computer duster is sometimes called “canned air,” but it’s actually the toxic chemical 1,1-difluoroethane. As Allen pulled the trigger, sending a spray of 1,1-difluoroethane into his mouth, he probably felt a surge of euphoria — like going from sober to wasted in just one sip. Neurotransmitters in his brain released a flood of chemicals that confused his heart: It likely started beating faster, becoming inflamed, developing an arrythmia.
Oxygen stopped flowing to his brain, lungs and heart. Since 1,1-difluoroethane is related to surgical anesthetic, he felt effects similar to those experienced by someone who’s going under. Allen’s coordination and ability to control his bodily functions disappeared. The high didn’t last long — it was gone in about five minutes. Each time the high wore off and the chemicals drained from Allen’s body, his body was so confused that he risked slipping into a coma or ceasing to breathe.
Walmart employees had already pointed Allen out to Abraham Cortes, an Aldine Independent School District police officer working a side job at Walmart for the day. As Allen inhaled the duster, Cortes stepped in line behind Allen and snapped handcuffs around his wrists, detaining him on the charge of “inhaling an abusable volatile chemical.” He then escorted Allen to the back room where Walmart kept shoplifters.
Allen said he needed to use the bathroom, but Cortes told him to wait for police officers to arrive. Ten, 15 minutes went by. Suddenly, Allen slumped over and turned purple. Walmart employees called 911 while Cortes started performing CPR on Allen, but it didn’t help. At 5:24 p.m., Allen was pronounced dead of a cardiac arrhythmia.
Later officers searched Allen’s car and reported finding between 25 and 30 empty Ultra Duster cans.
Two weeks after Allen died, Hencerling called Walmart and asked if she could see the security footage of her son’s death. Walmart employees told her to call back in six months, she says. So she did. Then they told her that their surveillance system re-records over old footage and the footage in question had been destroyed.
Steven Allen’s case is far from the first time someone has inhaled, or “huffed,” computer duster at a Walmart. Thanks to its many 24-hour locations and nationally recognized security problems, it’s easy for huffers to go overlooked at Walmart. They often don’t even bother to leave the store’s property before they get started. Plus a three-pack of Dust-Off costs less than $12.
In 2013 Robert Pry bought $100 worth of duster at an Arkansas Walmart and huffed it all in just one day. Out of money, he holed himself up in a Kmart and spent the entire night huffing the computer duster in stock. In 2015 Melissa Wright scorched half of her jaw huffing duster in a Kansas Walmart, thanks to 1,1-difluoroethane’s ability to cause instant frostbite, according to media reports. Last May Lindsay Adams was caught huffing duster in the parking lot and bathroom of a Pennsylvania Walmart, three separate times by police — all within a four-day period. And these people were just the ones whose cases were so extreme that the media paid attention.
People have sniffed glue and gasoline since at least the ’60s, but experts say there are now likely more than 1,400 household products that people use to get high. Almost 21.7 million Americans ages 12 and older say they’ve used inhalants at least once, according to a 2012 open letter on inhalant abuse by Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That’s more than five times the number of Americans 12 and older who, in 2011, reported using heroin at least once in their lives, according to a 2014 NIDA publication.
“It’s the forgotten epidemic,” says Harvey Weiss, who runs the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based organization that aims to fight against inhalant abuse. Weiss worked in Austin in the ’90s, developing the state’s educational programs about inhalant abuse. Back then, he says, people paid a lot more attention to the dangers. “If you look at data, you can see that there really hasn’t been that many significant changes and decreases in use. It’s just that other things have taken prevalence. It’s really not sexy to talk about inhalants.”
Yet anti-inhalant-abuse activists say that inhalants are among the deadliest drugs. Inhalant users need to breathe in only once for a fatal heart arrhythmia known as Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome to develop. “Inhalants are, almost more than any drug, more likely to cause death on first use,” says Howard Wolfe, director of the New England Inhalant Abuse Prevention Coalition. “You have many, many people dying from tobacco and alcohol. But very few the first time they’ve tried it.”
In September 2014 Roger Taft Collins was found dead in his car in a North Carolina Walmart parking lot, a few hours after buying computer duster from the store, according to media reports at the time. Last October Jett Fischer was caught huffing duster in a Walmart bathroom in Washington state. He was taken to the hospital and died a few hours later. In mid-July Sean Sobczak was found huffing in an Illinois Walmart parking lot, with 12 cans of duster in his car. He was also taken to a hospital, where he died the next day.
And on April 13, 2016, 24-year-old Karalee Williams was found dead of a 1,1-difluoroethane overdose in the parking lot of a Baytown Walmart store. Williams had parked her car in the Walmart parking lot on April 10, and — over the next two days — entered the Walmart nine times, ultimately buying 67 cans of computer duster, says Tracie Fisher, who says the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office officials who worked on Williams’s case told her this. Many of the cans were Dust-Off, another popular duster brand, according to crime-scene photos. Fisher is a senior paralegal working on a lawsuit against Walmart over what happened to Williams, as Williams’s adoptive mother, Deleese Allen (no relation to Steven), is now suing Walmart for wrongful death damages.
Yet North Carolina, Washington and Illinois all have laws to regulate the abuse of computer duster and other inhalants. Technically, Texas has a law like that too. But thanks to a loophole, maybe Allen should never have ended up in Walmart’s back room at all. Maybe the crime he was detained for wasn’t even a crime.
Inhalants aren’t covered in the Controlled Substances Act, the federal law that governs the possession, sale and abuse of most major drugs. Instead, each state is left to devise its own laws to fight inhalant abuse. In Texas that law is the Abusable Volatile Chemicals statute. The AVC statute outlines guidelines for retailers who sell products that could be abused as inhalants, as well as criminal penalties for people who abuse them. It also defines what does, and doesn’t, legally count as an illegal inhalant in Texas.
To qualify as an AVC, a product not only must have the potential to cause intoxication, but must also be labeled with two very specific words: “Vapor Harmful.” This “Vapor Harmful” label must be written in all capital letters and be affixed to the front of the product — customers at a store should be able to see if something has the “Vapor Harmful” label without even taking it from the shelf. (Spray paint and most products that contain nitrous oxide also automatically count as AVCs.)
On April 19, 2015, just before midnight, Abilene police officer Chris Bisbee was dispatched to one of the town’s two Walmarts — someone had apparently stolen a can of computer duster. Behind the Walmart lies a wide, grassy field. That’s where Bisbee found Cody Critchfield out cold, still gripping a can of Ultra Duster. Scattered around Critchfield’s body were 31 more cans.
Though he was 31 at the time, Critchfield’s boyish face was mottled with blue and purple bruises, which he told Bisbee were from abusing the duster. “He was very straightforward about it,” Bisbee says. “He knew he had a problem.” Critchfield later admitted to having huffed all 32 cans in just one day.
Because Critchfield had a Walmart receipt for Ultra Duster in his pocket, he wasn’t arrested for theft. Instead, Bisbee arrested Critchfield for “possession and use of a volatile chemical,” the AVC statute’s criminal charge for users. As Bisbee noted in his report, Critchfield “admitted to using [the duster] in a manner contrary to its directions for use, cautions, and warning appearing on the label.”
There are usually many, many labels on computer duster cans that warn that inhaling the toxic chemical inside is dangerous. There are also first aid suggestions about what to do if someone inhales the duster. There’s even a warning about the computer duster’s “bitterant,” a bitter-tasting chemical added to many duster brands years ago in an effort to make them too disgusting for anyone to want to huff.
Yet neither Ultra Duster, the brand of duster Allen and Critchfield abused, nor Dust-Off, the brand Karalee Williams abused, has the words “Vapor Harmful” anywhere on its cans. That’s because “Vapor Harmful” is a label adopted from the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, which dictates how potentially dangerous household products should be labeled to help consumers safely navigate using them. The FHSA mandates that only products containing certain chemicals must be labeled with the words “Vapor Harmful” — and 1,1-difluoroethane isn’t one of them.
So yes, Critchfield was doing exactly what the labels warned him not to do. Yet, when it comes to the AVC statute, none of those labels count.
“As far as what we’re looking at, we’re focusing in on ‘Vapor Harmful.’ That’s it,” says Terry Johnson, manager of the Environmental Inspections Group for the Texas Department of State Health Services. His inspectors make sure that retailers who sell AVCs are properly following the AVC statute. (Among other things, retailers can’t sell AVCs to minors.) His team focuses so strictly on “Vapor Harmful,” in fact, that the Department of State Health Services’ online FAQ page for the AVC program warns that even if one brand of a product is an AVC, a different brand may not be.
“There may be other products available out there that you can still get high off of, so to speak,” Johnson admits.When asked if he knew of any other Texas laws that regulate inhalant sales or provide a different legal definition of inhalants, Johnson says he does not.
Because these duster cans are missing just two little words, they’re not defined as AVCs. Therefore, they
likely can’t be governed by any of the statute’s regulations — civil or criminal.
Critchfield’s April 2015 arrest for “possession and use of a volatile chemical” wasn’t his first or his last. Since 2014 Critchfield has been booked four times for inhalant abuse, though his arrest by Bisbee ended up being dismissed. As a Class B misdemeanor, breaking the AVC statute is punishable by up to $2,000 in fines, up to 180 days in jail or both. As of press time, Critchfield remained in jail after being charged on August 5. Yet if the “Vapor Harmful” label requirement should still apply when charging someone with a criminal AVC violation, that might throw into question the legality of these charges — do prosecutors look for that all-important “Vapor Harmful” label?
The answer is no, at least when it comes to decisions by prosecutors with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to charge people for breaking the AVC statute, says Jeff McShan, the office’s public information officer. McShan says he spoke with prosecutors. “They were saying, ‘Yeah, we usually ask if there’s a warning label on it.’ But they were making it very clear that they don’t have to have it,” he says. This contrasts sharply with the view of those enforcing the statute’s civil side, like Johnson, who rely so heavily on specific labeling.
“Whether it’s this law or any other law, right, if elements aren’t met, then I mean legally you can’t prosecute, ethically you can’t prosecute,” says Fort Bend County Executive Assistant DA Wesley Wittig, who cautioned that laws have surprising loopholes “all the time.” Of the potential problems with the AVC definition, Wittig says, “It is unfortunate and it is a loophole we’d like to close…It’s more troubling if folks are proceeding under, if nobody knew that it didn’t quite — it didn’t quite fit. That would be more troubling.”
However, no officials that McShan spoke with at the Harris County DA’s office remembered a case that was dismissed or lost because the AVC labeling requirements were brought up.
Anti-inhalant-abuse activist Weiss says he’s never heard of another state that uses federal labeling requirements as the rubric for defining something as an illegal inhalant. Instead, many other states’ inhalant abuse laws provide a straightforward listing of chemicals that are illegal to smell in order to cause intoxication. Often at the ends of these lists are the words “or other similar solvents.” Those words act as a legal umbrella, granting these state statutes the power to potentially cover any product that people abuse, an ability Texas lacks.
Allen was never charged with breaking the AVC statute, but he was once arrested after huffing in Victoria in 2012. Graham says she didn’t know that Allen huffed until after she already had gotten pregnant and moved in with him. They’d met online, through Facebook, and she thought Allen was kind, passionate and very smart.
Then, high on duster, Allen drove his car into a ditch. A police officer spotted him and arrested him for public intoxication, Graham recalls. But that wasn’t the only time Allen’s huffing scared Graham. He continued to disappear a lot. Once, after Allen had been gone a few days, Graham and his mother tracked him down to a parking lot where he’d been huffing computer duster in his car. “He just had vomit all over him. And he wasn’t waking up, and of course he had peed all over himself,” Graham recalls. She drove his car back to their place. “And then we called the ambulance because I didn’t know what else to do.”
Allen wasn’t arrested for that incident. Wittig says that someone huffing in a parked car, as Allen was, could have potentially been charged with public intoxication. When asked if someone could then huff computer duster legally, as long as he or she wasn’t in public, Wittig didn’t have an answer.
Deleese Allen, the mother of Karalee Williams — the woman who died in the Baytown Walmart parking lot — is not the first person to sue Walmart over the superstore’s role in inhalant abuse deaths.
In September 2010, 38-year-old James “Jimi” Monticelli was found dead in his apartment after having bought large quantities of duster cans at Walmart. Monticelli grew up in Lakeland, a Syracuse, New York, suburb. In an already close-knit community, the Monticellis were one of the tightest families. Monticelli’s mom, Cathy, used to throw backyard barbecues for all of Monticelli’s friends. “They had a pool back there, they were cooking, we’d all go back there and hang out,” says Paul Trovato, one of Monticelli’s childhood friends.
The Monticellis and Trovato knew that Jimi Monticelli was addicted to prescription painkillers. Cathy even told Monticelli that he couldn’t “break bread” with the family until he got help for his addiction. But none of them — including Monticelli’s father, Jim — had any idea that Monticelli huffed. It wasn’t until after Monticelli died that they even realized that sniffing computer duster was a way to get high.
Cathy still remembers the night the police came to her house to tell her what had happened to her son. Cathy and Jim were sitting out on the deck, and had just decided to go to bed when they heard a knock at the door. “It was a police officer, and we both looked at each other. And he said, ‘You need to go the hospital.”
Afterward, Trovato volunteered to clean up Monticelli’s apartment. He ended up filling three garbage bags with cans of computer duster. “I would say 80 percent of the [duster] receipts that were there were from Walmart,” Trovato says. In just the week before his death, Monticelli bought duster from one Walmart store on three separate occasions, according to court documents the Monticellis later filed. At one point, Trovato remembers, Monticelli bought nine cans in a single trip.
As the executor of his son’s estate, Jim Monticelli sued Walmart in August 2012 for more than $15 million in damages. They ended up settling in 2014 for a much smaller amount, Cathy says, and nearly all of it went to paying for lawyers, investigators and scientists they had used in the lawsuit. But Jim and Cathy were too exhausted to keep fighting. “I know it’s not Walmart’s fault that Jimi had all that problem,” Cathy says, “but Walmart made it easy.”
Right now, Deleese Allen’s lawsuit against Walmart remains in legal limbo here in Texas.
Williams’s boyfriend, Steve Yang, told police that Williams never returned after leaving for a babysitting gig on the night of April 9. It wasn’t until about 10:30 p.m. on April 10 that Williams first walked into Walmart to buy duster. Tracie Fisher, the paralegal handling Deleese Allen’s lawsuit, says she learned this information from police officials working on Williams’s case. Throughout the night and early morning, Williams returned multiple times and bought more, Fisher says police told her.
At about 1 p.m. on April 11, Williams came into the store again. She looked scared and incoherent, “as if she didn’t know where she was,” wrote Walmart employee Stephanie Gary in a statement to the Chambers County Sheriff’s Department. (Gary declined to talk to the Houston Press.) Williams’s face and hair were matted with vomit, and she had defecated on herself. She told Gary that she had also just had a seizure, and asked for help. Gary got her cleaned up, gave her a new dress to wear and told Walmart management about Williams. Williams then headed to the electronics section, where she bought more cans of computer duster, and went to the restroom. Gary waited for her outside the restroom until she was called away. “After that, I never saw her again,” she wrote in her statement.
Then, just before 1 p.m. on April 13, a Walmart customer spotted Williams’s lifeless body. She was naked from the waist down, one foot pressed up against the windshield, and was still holding a can of duster. According to the coroner’s report, by the time they found her, Williams had been dead for about a day. The police had found 32 more duster cans in the car.
In May Deleese Allen sued Walmart, arguing that Walmart knew Williams was high on inhalants and still sold her the products that ultimately killed her. Allen’s lawyer, Jeff Steidley, filed a temporary restraining order to preserve evidence, such as surveillance footage, documentation of Williams’s purchases, and employees’ testimony. Just two hours before the case was supposed to go before a judge, Steidley says, Walmart’s lawyers filed a notice to move the case from district to federal court. This effectively prevented Steidley from seeing any evidence until October, when the first conference about the case is scheduled. “The design of Walmart [is] to be able to put witnesses in front of the camera, under oath, and for them to say, ‘Gee, that was several months ago, I can’t really [remember],’” Steidley says. “They’ve achieved that.”
When asked if the AVC definition would cause problems in Deleese’s lawsuit, Steidley says he has a few legal defenses prepared — but he thinks Walmart will “definitely” bring it up in court. “They’re going to come along and say, ‘We didn’t give her anything that violated the act because it’s not an abusable chemical, if it didn’t have this label on it. And that’s just another reason why we don’t have a responsibility to Karalee Williams or anybody else.’”
Williams’s family declined to be interviewed for this article. The Houston firm representing Walmart in Deleese Allen’s case, Daw & Ray, L.L.P., referred all requests for comment to Walmart. Walmart spokesman Charles Crowson, in response to questions about the case, sent only this emailed statement: “Our hearts go out to Ms. Williams’ family, friends and loved ones. Our response to the lawsuit is contained within the filed documents. Respectfully, we have denied the allegations and will continue responding appropriately as the lawsuit continues.” As for what happened to Steven Allen, Crowson said: “All we can do is confirm that there was an incident involving Mr. Allen at our Houston store in 2014.”
When asked if Walmart has any policies involving the sale of duster or other potential inhalants, Crowson said that Walmart follows all local, state and federal laws. Because Williams died from huffing Dust-Off, which doesn’t have a “Vapor Harmful” label, it might have been completely legal for Walmart to sell her the duster.
Walmart appears to have devised some of its own policies for selling duster. Jess Levin, a spokeswoman for Making Change at Walmart — a campaign run by the union United Food and Commercial Workers to improve Walmart as an employer — says her field staff spoke to four Walmart employees working in Texas about the issue. These employees, she says, were told to check the IDs of people buying duster to ensure they were over 18.
Yet as long as someone can hand over a valid ID, it seems that he or she can buy the duster, regardless of mental state. Levin’s staff spoke to Walmart employees across the country, including more than ten in Texas, and discovered that none of them knew exactly what they were supposed to do if a customer was on drugs. “What we found is that there’s no one overriding policy for all of Walmart when it comes to this issue,” Levin says. Fewer than half of the employees Levin talked to said they would tell their manager if they suspected someone was on drugs. Instead, a majority said they would do nothing. “If there is one [policy], workers don’t know that it exists,” Levin adds, “so there might as well not be one.”
In response to questions about what Walmart employees are told to do if customers are on drugs, Crowson only said, “If customers appear to be impaired, we do not discuss our policies and procedures.”
Texas bartenders risk being charged with a misdemeanor if they serve anyone who is obviously intoxicated. There’s no such law for inhalants.
Tracking inhalant abuse is surprisingly difficult, so it’s hard to know the true extent of the problem. Inhalant-related deaths are not well recorded, says Sara Stickler, executive director of the Alliance for Consumer Education, an anti-inhalants-abuse group based in Washington, D.C. These deaths might be attributed to cardiac arrest, suffocation or drowning, since so many people abuse in the bath or shower, Stickler says. “You’re looking in the hundreds probably, annually, just from the alerts and the cases we are able to track on our own. But there’s probably many, many more that are being recorded as something else.”
Even when trying to determine whether someone has huffed, physicians need to run special blood tests. Many labs don’t even have the equipment to look for inhalant abuse. “Hospitals almost never are able to test for these things,” says Joseph Avella, a Nassau County, New York, medical examiner who has written academic articles studying deaths related to 1,1-difluoroethane. “So you have an individual [who] comes in; they’re under the influence of this drug. They withdraw [a] blood sample, they test it, they don’t detect it, and it’s cleared from the body so rapidly…There’s no recognition that this is what the person was doing, unless they self-report or somebody says something.”
While working as a doctor in Dallas, William Dinsfriend encountered this problem firsthand. In 2013, a 23-year-old man came into the hospital where Dinsfriend worked, complaining of chest pains. Doctors ran drug tests, but nothing turned up. The man left and returned to the hospital four months later in 2014 with the same complaints. On the patient’s second day in the hospital, Dinsfriend noticed that his heart rate was suddenly spiking. So Dinsfriend and another doctor walked into the man’s room, and caught him with a can of Dust-Off to his lips — while sitting in his hospital bed, still hooked up to the medical monitors.
“That’s not really mentioned in medical school and in residency training, so to be honest there’s just not that much known about it. And so I didn’t really know that much about it at all,” says Dinsfriend, who ended up writing an academic paper about the incident. Now, when patients present with similar symptoms, he often suggests doctors look into whether the patients are huffing. “A lot of the older doctors will be like, ‘What’s that?’” Dinsfriend says. “Some will be interested, and some will just kind of shrug it off.”
Before Allen died, Graham and Hencerling received that shrug from the drug abuse professionals they spoke to about Allen. Back in Victoria, Graham and Hencerling tried to take Allen to rehab for huffing, but no facility would accept him. Rehab administrators kept on insisting that inhalants weren’t drugs, Graham says, or that someone couldn’t be addicted to them. Eventually they gave up. After the couple moved to Houston in 2012, Allen really did seem to settle down. He still drank, but that didn’t bother Graham as much as the computer duster had. So she stayed with Allen, even as their relationship fell apart and he used duster twice more.
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“But instead of me constantly nagging at him…I would just clean it up, let him shower, didn’t say anything,” Graham says. “And then I would tell him, ‘You know, you need to get help. We need to call somebody to help you.’” But when she called Houston rehab facilities, she got the same answer she had gotten in Victoria: No, computer duster isn’t a drug. No, we can’t take him.
She stayed in the relationship for so long, Graham says, for Allen’s mom’s sake. “She begged me, because she knew if I left that he would go off and do it again,” Graham says. “And I thought he was doing good. So I was scared that was going to happen, but I was really hoping it didn’t. But I guess I didn’t really get the best of luck in the end.”
Even now, when she sees computer duster stockpiled on stores’ shelves, Graham says she thinks the cans should be put behind a glass container. She wants the duster to be less accessible, its dangers more well-known — especially for children like her son, Daemon, who is now nearly four and remembers very little of his father.
“Every time I see a can of duster, I get sick to my stomach, because I think of the smell of the vomit and the pee,” she says. Graham pauses, then repeats, “It makes me sick to my stomach to this day.”