The car sped at James Pierce and his girlfriend as they walked to his apartment one clear January night.
The white Dodge Intrepid struck them head-on at 11:15 p.m. along Cortland Avenue, authorities said.
The force from the fender partially tore off Pierce's left leg. The crash threw Pierce, 55, onto the car's hood and through the windshield, his father later said. Glass lodged in his head.
His girlfriend, Senora Brown, 44, also suffered serious injuries.
The Intrepid sped off. Within an hour, Anthony Jones, 29, called 911 to admit striking the pedestrians.
Before running down the couple, Jones had smoked a cigarette dipped in embalming fluid laced with PCP, according to Senior Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bednarski.
Jones's case highlights the effects of smoking embalming fluid with PCP. While police don't track the recreational use of embalming fluid, a legal substance, local health-care officials say they are seeing more cases of the substance being mixed with drugs for a hallucinogenic -- and often violent -- high. Local emergency rooms are on pace to handle twice the number of embalming fluid cases as a year ago.
An ambulance rushed James Pierce to University Hospital Jan. 16 for emergency surgery. He was unconscious for two weeks. After three months, he was transferred to a rehabilitation facility on the Hudson River south of Albany. He hasn't seen his parents since.
His parents visited him every other day in Syracuse, but they are elderly and can't make the 200-mile trip to Lake Katrine, near the Catskills.
"Oh my God, if we could see him, that would mean so much," his father, William, 85, said.
His parents scraped together $15 from their Social Security income to send to him. They heard the facility has a place where he can buy small items, such as food and toiletries.
Reached by phone last week, Pierce said he doesn't remember the crash or his stay at University Hospital.
Pierce, a professional handyman, had his left leg amputated. One of his arms is useless. He's in a wheelchair.
His girlfriend could not be reached for comment.
Jones, the driver, admitted on July 21 that he had been driving under the influence of drugs. He pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular assault and leaving the scene of an incident without reporting it. He is expected to spend 3 1/3 to 10 years in state prison.
Cigarettes dipped in embalming fluid have been around since the 1960s, but their use has increased in Syracuse in the past few years, and especially in the past year, said Dr. Elizabeth Berry, a clinical psychologist at Crouse Hospital.
The fluid is available online and marijuana laced with it is often sold on the street, she said.
The embalming fluid sold on street corners is virtually always laced with illegal drugs, Berry said.
"People found different ways to combine it with other drugs," she said. "Drug dealers are not FDA-approved."
It's often combined with phencyclidine, also known as PCP, a strong hallucinogen, and used to coat marijuana cigarettes, experts said.
The PCP causes the unpredictable and violent behavior that is associated with embalming fluid, giving it the reputation of a drug that causes users to act crazy.
Users are known to strip off their clothing and do things believing they have super-human strength.
"These are the kids you hear are tearing their clothes off and running down the street," Berry said.
She said teens she counsels in the hospital's chemical dependency treatment program have alerted her to increased use of embalming fluid. They have described hallucinogenic episodes that indicate the presence of PCP.
"They see things that they didn't see before -- their face dripping, their skin falling off, body parts spreading out," she said. "It's like going through that funhouse. It's a little scary, but they like it."
A tiny amount -- or about 0.00025 grams -- of pure PCP is enough to get high, said Dr. Christine Stork, managing director of the Upstate New York Poison Center. This amount cannot be placed on a cigarette directly, so drug dealers use embalming fluid to dilute the drug into a solution with the street name "wet" or "water." The cigarette is dipped in this mixture.
A dipped cigarette is called "fry" or a "fry stick." It is either shaken or put in a freezer to dry out before it is smoked. A marijuana cigarette laced with embalming fluid and PCP sells on the street for about $20.
Four people with illnesses relating to embalming fluid were treated in Central New York emergency rooms in 2008. Four users had been reported by May this year, according to the Upstate New York Poison Center.
But street use rarely results in emergency room visits, Stork said. Experts compared it to the small number who check themselves into hospitals after getting high on marijuana or ecstasy.
"It's when something goes wrong, that's when they go to the hospital," said Michele Caliva, the administrative director at the poison center.
Syracuse funeral director Charles Garland learned first-hand about the street demand for embalming fluid after a man claimed he was one of Garland's workers.
Police said the man walked into the Butler-Badman Funeral Home in early May and asked John Badman for embalming fluid, claiming he worked for Garland Bros.
The man left with four bottles of embalming fluid, said Joseph Matt, who works with Badman. Three days later, the man came back and got four more bottles.
Matt called Garland when the man came the second time, but Garland didn't call back until after the man left. Soon after, Garland called and told Matt to call police.
When the man came back May 5, sheriff's deputies were waiting. He told them he was a funeral director looking for work, but could not provide any identification, said Sgt. John D'Eredita.
Andrew J.J. Washington, 39, of 211 Warner Ave., was charged with petit larceny, D'Eredita said. Washington could not be reached for comment.
Syracuse police don't track embalming fluid use, because the substance is not illegal.
But officers are aware it is available on the street, said Lt. John Corbett. He likened it to other inhalants, such as typewriter fluid and cleaning solvents, when it's not combined with PCB.
Funeral director talks about the dangers of embalming fluid use
Garland said embalming fluid is too easily available for abuse.
The chemical is used in more than 60 funeral homes in Onondaga County, Garland said. Hospital morgues use formaldehyde, a main ingredient in embalming fluid. Anyone with access to those places could steal it, he said.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says the fluid can be bought in person from manufacturers or purchased on the Internet.
"It's not that hard to get your hands on it," Garland said.
Recreational use should be outlawed, he said.
"Sometimes, a tragedy has to happen to make people aware there is a larger problem. We have to be proactive and enact laws to prevent this abuse."
What is embalming fluid?
It's a chemical compound containing formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol and other solvents. A highly-flammable poison, its purpose is to preserve the dead by making the body an unsuitable host for bacteria and other organisms. This slows the decomposition process. Embalming fluid is used before the dead are shown at a funeral or sent long distances. Source: Funeral director Charles Garland
The drug's effects
Smoking embalming fluid with PCP can result in:
Hallucinations; symptoms associated with schizophrenia, including delusions and paranoia; difficulty with speech or thought; loss of self-identity; depression and weight loss. It can cause users to lose the bounds of their egos and to lose touch with reality. Source: National Drug Intelligence Center
Embalming fluid slang
Fry, fry sticks, fry sweet, wet, water, wetdaddy, wack, ill, illy, sherm, milk, purple rain, happy sticks, drank, dippers, amp and clickem. Source: National Drug Intelligence Center
Listen to an interview with reporter Doug Dowty about this story in our new feature, Centered on Syracuse.
by Douglass Dowty
August 3, 2009