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Josiah Christopher Klaes, 16, died Jan. 19, 2018 from what was believed to be a fentanyl overdose. The trial for the Millersville man who's alleged to have dealt him the fatal dose began Tuesday.
Josiah Christopher Klaes, 16, died Jan. 19, 2018 from what was believed to be a fentanyl overdose. The trial for the Millersville man who's alleged to have dealt him the fatal dose began Tuesday. (Courtesy/BSMG)

Did Josiah Klaes die because of fentanyl or was it the depression?

That’s the question defense attorneys and prosecutors left with an Anne Arundel County jury Tuesday as they deliberate the fate of Jason Patton Baker, 46, of Millersville. Baker is charged with manslaughter and fentanyl distribution in the 16-year-old’s death, which police and prosecutors he caused by dealing a fatal dose of the powerful synthetic.

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The case is simple, Assistant State’s Attorney Jason Steinhardt told the jury in his closing remarks in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, just follow the texts: Baker sold fentanyl to Klaes, despite knowing his age, and when Klaes took it, he died.

He was at the time of his death Jan. 19, 2018 the youngest overdose victim since the county police department began tracking such fatalities in 2014. Since then, a 9-month old child has died of an overdose.

“It takes somebody special to deal to a 16-year-old,” Steinhardt said.

Baker’s attorneys presented a different theory, albeit one that evolved as the trial progressed. Klaes, they said, was terribly depressed after the death of his mother and with the lack of strong father figure — his older brother did the best he could, they said — turned to drugs as an escape.

“By all accounts, he had a horrible life... To escape that reality, he used illicit drugs, ”Assistant Public Defender Denis O’Connell said. “He was consuming any sort of drug he could get a hold of.”

A forensic pathologist from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner testified that Klaes’ died of a fentanyl overdose and that alone.

Baker’s attorneys hired an expert from Colorado to review the case, and Dr. Michael Arnall disagreed. Klaes’ could’ve died of health complications attributable to the improper use of his antidepressant citalopram, commonly known by the brand name Lexapro, Arnall testified.

O’Connell called into question the work by medical examiner’s office, the employees of which he said were chronically overworked. When Dr. Carol Allan and her colleagues saw fentanyl on the toxicology report, O’Connell said, they just stopped.

“She lines bodies up and takes a quick look at them," he said.

“(Arnall) looked at everything more thoroughly...” O’Connell said. "He didn’t start with an answer.”

Steinhardt defended the state employees and lashed out at Arnall’s “colorful theories.” Allan testified she’d participated in approximately 6,600 autopsies throughout her 16-year career, he said, is there really any question about her expertise?

And when Arnall finally took the stand, he was often interrupted. Steinhardt made sure of it.

“What conclusion did you come up with in terms of the manner of death?” Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Connell asked Arnall.

Before the doctor could speak, Steinhardt interjected: “Objection!”

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The attorneys approached the bench. This process repeated itself again and again anytime the defense approached a threshold established by Judge Donna Schaeffer before trial. She had ruled that the defense lawyers and experts could not introduce their theory that Klaes committed suicide.

Contributory negligence — in this case, the actions Klaes — is not a defense for involuntary manslaughter, the Maryland Court of Appeals determined in a recent case both sets of attorneys referenced in pretrial writings.

“Sustained,” said Schaeffer, ruling in favor of Steinhardt.

Detective Michael Moorhouse, of the county Police Department’s Fatal Overdose Unit, got the case after the crime scene had been documented and after evidence had or had not been collected and tested from the untouched bedroom.

Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Connell highlighted the items police did not collect from Klaes’ room, such as empty bottles of his prescription antidepressant and two loose tablets of it, one of which had been partially crushed and the straw that appeared to have a white powdery residue.

“I would’ve collected drug paraphernalia,” Moorhouse said, acknowledging he would’ve done differently had he been in control of the crime scene.

Connell and O’Connell also questioned why law enforcement didn’t follow up on Klaes’ father’s medical history. They said he had been prescribed painkillers recently and wondered if Klaes had access. Moorhouse explained it was superfluous to the overdose investigation, which he said focused on illegal drugs.

“They want you to assume he never even looked in his own medicine cabinet for opioids,” O’Connell said.

Steinhardt made sure to highlight the text messages, particularly those he said proved Baker knew the potency of his drugs and the effect they could have on a teenager. He reminded the jurors about the message exchange where Baker asked Klaes for his height, age and weight, all of which Steinhardt said Baker asked because he was trying to control the dose.

Steinhardt and the public defenders highlighted the testimony of Klaes’ 17-year-old best friend to different effects.

O’Connell noted that the 17-year-old testified he and his pal had tried it all — PCP, cocaine, codeine, Adderall, ecstasy and Xanax. All of it, O’Connell explained, they got from people other than Baker.

However the friend also testified they only ever bought “dope,” slang for heroin and fentanyl, from Baker, Steinhardt said, and the 7,000 text messages extracted from Klaes’ phone proved as much.

O’Connell said the 17-year-old testified that Klaes always put the heroin gel capsules, like the “pills” they bought from Baker, on the window sill in his room. But no such capsules were found when authorities documented Klaes’ bedroom after his death, only one full and one partially crushed tablets with the number “5851” imprinted on them. Those are the markings of citalopram pills, he said.

None of the other drugs matter, nor do Klaes’ actions, Steinhardt said. Only fentanyl, the lone cause of death offered to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, and Baker, the man that dealt it, should concern the jury, he concluded.

“Have you heard of the citalopram epidemic?"

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