The young father told police that he was alone with his newborn son when he inhaled the spray from a can of electronics cleaner, an increasingly popular choice for those seeking a cheap high.
Moments later, he went on to tell investigators, he awoke from a brief blackout to find his 15-day-old son bruised and disfigured. Kenneth George Ryan said he does not remember how the baby was hurt, but yesterday police announced that the 20-year-old Baltimore County man had been charged with murder.
Young people call the practice "dusting," a name taken from the "Dust-Off" brand product that uses a burst of gas to clean computer keyboards and other electronics.
Videos of teenagers shooting the cleaner into their mouths can be found on the Web site youtube.com. Wild-eyed, they laugh, chatter in altered voices and fall down.
But they risk their lives each time they inhale the substance, experts say. News accounts describe three teenage boys dead in a car with a can of Dust-Off and a youngster found dead in bed with the straw from the can in his mouth.
"Tonight between 12 and 1, I'm probably going to be sitting at the cemetery," said Jeff Williams, an Ohio police officer whose 14-year-old son, Kyle, died two years ago today after huffing, or inhaling, the gas. "I don't want anyone else to have to go through that."
Mike Gimbel, director of substance abuse education at Sheppard Pratt, said some parents might not think anything of buying a product that they assume is nothing more than canned air.
"They don't realize how dangerous it can be," he said, explaining that the cans contain a toxic mixture of compressed gases, coolants and cleaners.
Ryan's father, Philip Ryan, speaking by phone from his Perry Hall home, said that his son had long struggled with drug problems but that fatherhood had inspired him to get clean.
"He kept saying, 'I want to be a good father just like you,'" said the elder Ryan, adding that his son had stopped using crack shortly before the baby's birth.
On Monday evening, Kenneth Ryan was watching the baby, Julian Woody, at the home of the child's mother in the 7600 block of Charlesmont Road in Dundalk.
Ryan told police that he inhaled a large quantity of cleaner and did not remember what happened next. He saw that Julian had been injured but said he did not know how the injury occurred, police said. Ryan alerted the mother and grandmother, and paramedics were called.
The baby was taken to Bayview Hospital, where doctors found that his face was bruised, his skull had been fractured and he was bleeding inside his head, court records show.
Julian was flown by helicopter to Children's Hospital in Washington, where he was pronounced dead Tuesday, police said. An autopsy listed the cause of death as "blunt force head trauma," according to court records.
Questioned by police, Ryan acknowledged that he was the only person with Julian when the infant was injured. He was arrested at his parents' home Wednesday evening and charged with first-degree murder.
Ryan's father was adamant that his son would not have intentionally harmed the baby:
"He's got the kindest heart of anyone I've ever met in my life."
Attempts to reach Julian's mother were unsuccessful.
Philip Ryan said that he and his wife, Ellen, had battled their son's addictions for years. Kenneth Ryan first started using alcohol and marijuana while in middle school, his father said. As a teenager, he entered drug rehabilitation programs twice.
He appeared to have gotten clean, but after breaking up with his son's mother, identified in the court records as Alisia Woody, and losing his job last summer, he started using crack, his father said. In August, he was arrested on charges of illegally possessing cocaine and a handgun and jailed. In November he was released on home detention.
Ryan moved out of his parents' home in January for reasons his father declined to specify. At the time of his arrest, police gave Ryan's address as a Catonsville homeless shelter.
Williams, the Ohio officer whose son died, said Kyle's inhalant abuse took him by surprise.
"I literally felt like the safest person on Earth," he said, explaining that he keeps a former drug-sniffing dog as a pet. "What I didn't realize is there are 14,000 different products that we bring into our homes that our kids are abusing."
Early on the morning of March 2, 2005, Williams' wife tried to wake Kyle, but the boy was unresponsive. She shook him, and "that's when he fell over and she saw the red straw in his mouth and the can of Dust-Off in his lap," Williams said.
An e-mail that Williams wrote about his son's death has been widely posted on the Internet. Teachers at one Baltimore County high school were recently e-mailed a copy of Kyle's story.
Williams urges parents to become aware of the warning signs of dusting, which include frostbite on the mouth.
Another news account describes the death of a 19-year-old Alaska man from huffing Dust-Off. A can of the product was found in a 2004 car crash that killed three teenage boys, according to reports in the Sacramento Bee.
Compressed gas cleaners are the latest in a long list of legal products that have been huffed by those seeking a quick high. Hair spray, paint, markers and even whipped cream are inhaled.
A 2004 survey of Maryland public school students showed that more than 6 percent of eighth-graders reported having used inhalants, according to the University of Maryland's Center of Substance Abuse Research.
When inhaled, the substances in products such as Dust-Off replace oxygen in the lungs with other gases, making a person feel light-headed, said Gimbel, the substance abuse educator at Sheppard Pratt. Users can lose inhibitions, hallucinate or pass out during the fleeting high.
The gas can kill, a phenomenon known as "sudden sniffing death syndrome," Gimbel said.
"It can kill you the first time," said Harvey Weiss, executive director of the National Inhalant Prevention Council. He said memory loss and disorientation are among the symptoms of dusting.
Falcon Safety Products, the maker of Dust-Off, responded to concerns last year by adding a bitter chemical to the formula in an attempt to discourage abuse, a company official said.
Williams said he hopes to see more drug-prevention money spent on teaching about the danger of inhalants.
"It's out there in such a great number, and I don't think parents really realize it," he said. "Parents want to say 'not mine, not my child.'"
Sun reporters Laura Barnhardt, Nick Shields and Andrew Schaefer contributed to this article.
Nearly all inhalants that are abused slow the body's function. A user can experience slight stimulation, loss of inhibition or unconsciousness. Users also risk death.
Signs of inhalant use include:
Paint or stains on body or clothing
Spots or sores around the mouth
Red or runny eyes or nose
Chemical breath odor
Drunk, dazed or dizzy appearance
Nausea, loss of appetite
Anxiety, excitability, irritability
[National Inhalant Prevention Coalition]