Witnesses tell of man's heroin death


Friends and acquaintances gave slightly different versions yesterday of events that led to the fatal heroin overdose of a 21-year-old Columbia man, even as they struggled with their own measure of responsibility for his death.

Despite their inconsistencies, the witnesses who testified in Howard County Circuit Court all contradicted the story told by Scott Milner Sheldon, 22, who is being tried on charges of second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment for allegedly preventing paramedics from attending to Morgan Manca-Wells Jr., 21, who lay dying in Sheldon's bathtub.

Friends carried Manca-Wells unconscious into Sheldon's Wolf River Lane house in Columbia the night of March 14 last year, and put him in the bathtub. They tried to revive him, at one point scalding him with hot water, but Manca-Wells stopped breathing and died.

In an interview with a police detective taped in July last year and played for the jury, Sheldon said he did not know Manca-Wells was in serious distress, or in his bathtub, until after paramedics and police showed up. He also said he was in too much of a heroin-induced haze to know exactly what was happening that night.

But his statements were contradicted yesterday by several witnesses, who said Sheldon was in the bathroom with Manca-Wells before paramedics arrived.

Witnesses told of Sheldon orchestrating a ruse to trick paramedics: He allegedly told a friend to take off his shirt and pretend to be the one who had been in trouble.

"[Sheldon] said something about [the friend] going outside and acting like he had OD'd and that he had just come out of it. To pose, I guess, as Morgan," said Lauren McHenry, 18, of Columbia.

Dayan Feldman, 23, said Sheldon was afraid to deliver Manca-Wells at the hospital when they decided later to take him there. In his taped interview, Sheldon said Feldman was the one who wanted to turn around at both Howard County General Hospital and St. Agnes Health Care in Southwest Baltimore.

The state attempted to further bolster its case with the testimony of a medical examiner, who estimated Manca-Wells died sometime between 10 p.m. and midnight - after the ambulances had left Sheldon's house.

The doctor also said a drug the paramedics had on hand "would have saved his life."

Sheldon and Feldman finally left Manca-Wells' body propped up against a Dumpster across from St. Agnes. Pictures presented to the jury showed a skinny, dark-haired and handsome boy, shirtless, burned, and with his jeans around his ankles.

What began as a fairly straightforward overdose death ended in murder charges after Howard County police received an anonymous letter telling them Manca-Wells could have been saved.

The state also has charged Brian Jefferson, 25, of Columbia and Wesley Tyson Hamerly, 21, of Elkridge in Manca-Wells' death. Their trials are scheduled for the fall.

Joseph Murtha, Sheldon's defense attorney, tried yesterday to show that Sheldon was no more culpable than any of the witnesses themselves. None of them had told the paramedics about Manca-Wells, either, or called 911, he pointed out. And Feldman, who was driving, could have stopped at the hospital despite Sheldon's protests.

In addition, they, like Sheldon, relied that night on another friend's insistence that Manca-Wells always nodded off when he took heroin and just needed to sleep, Murtha said.

Several witnesses recognized that what seemed reasonable during a drug-filled, snowy night in March appeared irresponsible in the cold light of a courtroom. A few seemed regretful as they testified, and told of how panicked they felt.

Asked if he was too unconcerned to take Manca-Wells to the hospital, Rob Salerno, 20, replied, "I wouldn't say not concerned. I would say scared. ... I was trying to figure out what to do about it, just like I'm sure everyone else was."

In his July 1999 interview, Sheldon, too, said he thought paramedics could have saved Manca-Wells. He was angry at himself and very upset, he said, but could not accept full responsibility.

"People are still trying to blame people, but it's not necessarily something you can blame somebody for," he said. "We didn't react properly. I didn't know what proper was. ... That doesn't mean I had anything to do with him destroying himself."

Closing arguments are set for today. Judge James B. Dudley is presiding.

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