By Michael E. Miller
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Wetli noted a profile. "It only happened in chronic users of cocaine and predominantly in males," he says. "It's as if they're impervious to pain — to pepper spray, to batons, to numchucks. You spray them with pepper spray and they just sort of look at you."
Wetli and UM colleague David A. Fishbain found seven such cases — six in Miami-Dade and one in Palm Beach County — that had occurred during a 13-month period in 1983 and 1984. The resulting study pioneered excited delirium.
The death cases read like classics of the syndrome: The female drug trafficker, the only woman in the study, who suddenly jumped out of a moving car. "You're trying to kill me. Please don't kill me. I have children," she begged of her boyfriend, who was driving, as she dove out the passenger-side door. She died after several police officers "subdued" her with handcuffs and ankle restraints.
Or the 26-year-old man who fought with his boyfriend, stripped naked, and "ran about the apartment smashing a variety of objects," lacerating himself, before expiring in restraints at the hospital.
And the cocaine freebaser who "began running down the street yelling and screaming unintelligibly." He stole and fired a police officer's gun after being tackled. Cops struck him twice on the head with a heavy flashlight, but the medical examiner didn't find lethal injuries.
In five of the seven cases, the subjects died in police custody. Wetli and Fishbain didn't know why excited delirium caused death, but they posited that it might have had something to do with the increasing purity of street cocaine. Their only recommendation was that cops and paramedics "be aware of the potential for sudden death" in crazed subjects.
But if Wetli was treading on shaky ground, his biggest case would call into question whether he was stretching the evidence to fit his theory.
For a decade, the bodies turned up in flop motels, parking lots, and alleyways throughout inner-city Miami. They were often naked from the waist down, and all showed signs of recently having had sex. They were all black women. Most were prostitutes and chronic cocaine users.
Cops and medical examiners were stumped by the 32 corpses found from 1980 to the turn of the next decade. But it wasn't the work of a subtropical Jack the Ripper, declared Dr. Wetli. Autopsies "have conclusively showed that these women were not murdered," he told the now-defunct Miami News in 1988. Instead, he hatched a brazen theory that would come to provide ammunition for modern-day debunkers of excited delirium.
Wetli posited that a female offshoot of the syndrome, involving the combination of sex and years of cocaine use, had caused the serial deaths. "My gut feeling," Wetli told New Times in 1989, "is that this is a terminal event that follows chronic use of crack cocaine affecting the nerve receptors in the brain."
"For some reason," he expounded to the Miami News, "the male of the species becomes psychotic [after chronic cocaine use] and the female of the species dies in relation to sex."
But in 1992, police announced they had found a serial killer responsible for the deaths: 36-year-old Charles Henry Williams. Wetli's boss, chief examiner Joseph Davis, exhumed the bodies for reexamination and found evidence of asphyxia. Williams died of an AIDS-related illness before he could face the mounting evidence against him, which included physical links, accounts from escaped victims, and a pattern that showed that when he was in prison, the deaths ceased.
Wetli's apparent missed call 20 years ago casts doubt on excited delirium today, says Nashville attorney and National Police Accountability Project member Andrew Clark. "He's one of the guys who coined excited delirium, and he misapplied it to the work of a serial killer," Clark says. "How do we know his colleagues aren't making a similar mistake?"
Today, Wetli, who is in private practice in New Jersey, initially downplays his theory. He had to make a diagnosis so that the bodies could be buried, he says. But then it becomes clear he still believes that death by sex might have killed those women 20 years ago. "It's certainly a possibility," he says. "The guy never went to trial, so we'll never know. The police had a commendable theory in suspecting him. But believing in something and proving it is another story."
University of Miami's brain bank, located on the fourth floor of a drab building in downtown Miami, is all cramped quarters, depressing lighting, and towering filing cabinets. It has about as much evil-lair feng shui as a small-town library.
But this — if you believe critics — is where neurology professor Deborah Mash, Dr. Wetli's heir as the world's leading expert on excited delirium, bends over brain samples, presumably with a hunchbacked assistant by her side, and concocts the science fiction that is gaining acceptance throughout the world.
"She's just a charlatan," California attorney John Burton, who has turned taking on Taser into a career, says of Mash. "She's not a medical doctor, and she has no business opining on cause of death."
But the 56-year-old dark-eyed neurologist, who wears pantsuits and a skeptical smile, doesn't act the villain when she meets with New Times. She calls a reporter "silly boy" in a chirpy drawl and commiserates with the anger she attracts. "Everybody's pointing fingers. Nobody's happy," she says of excited delirium deaths. "And the problem for medical examiners is that they have no anatomic cause of death. You're running around manic one minute, and the next minute you're dead."