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September 2, 2014

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Inquest testimony focuses on Erik Scott’s use of prescription drugs

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Steve Marcus

Dr. Alane Olson, a medical examiner for the coroner’s office, testifies about morphine levels in Erik Scott’s blood during a coroner’s inquest at the Regional Justice Center Wednesday, September 22, 2010.

Erik Scott Coroner's Inquest - Day 1

Bill Scott, Erik Scott's father, listens to testimony during a coroner's inquest at the Regional Justice Center Wednesday, September 22, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Colleen Kullberg was among the last to leave the Summerlin Costco store on July 10. The store was being evacuated — it could be a bomb threat, she thought — but as she was leaving the store, she wasn’t sure why she had been ordered out.

But after Kullberg, a part-time customer service employee, made her way from the back of the store where she was stationed to the front exit, it wasn’t a bomb that confronted her. A very different sort of explosive scene unfolded in front of her eyes, she testified on Wednesday.

A man, later determined to be Erik Scott, was staring at a Metro Police officer. Scott was standing with his arms to his sides and appeared to be dazed, she said.

He then reached around behind him and, with his right hand, removed a gun from his waistband and brought it forward, pointing it at the officer.

“What did you think he was going to do?” asked Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Laurent.

“Shoot,” she said.

But before that could happen, the officer fired.

Kullberg was the final witness called during the first day of testimony in the coroner’s inquest into Scott’s death. The 38-year-old medical device salesman, a graduate of West Point and Duke University, was shot to death outside the Summerlin store on a busy Saturday afternoon.

Police responded to the store after a security employee called 911 to report a man was acting erratically, destroying merchandise. The caller told dispatchers the man had a gun and was possibly high on drugs.

Kullberg said that before shots were fired, the officer said “at least five times” for Scott to “get on the ground.”

“He was like, dazed,” she said. “He was not obeying any of (the officer’s) commands.”

On Wednesday, Laurent and Assistant District Attorney Chris Owens presented evidence that Scott had an addiction to hydrocodone, a prescription narcotic painkiller.

Dr. Alane Olson, a medical examiner in the Clark County Coroner’s Office, testified that Scott had a number of drugs in his system when he died. The levels of morphine and xanax found by a toxicology screen conducted after his death were very high and potentially lethal, she said.

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Dr. Alane Olson, a medical examiner for the coroner's office, testifies about gunshot wounds during a coroner's inquest at the Regional Justice Center Wednesday, September 22, 2010.

The levels also indicated that he had likely built up a tolerance to the drugs over time, she said.

He died from multiple gunshot wounds, she said, and the death was ruled a homicide.

Seven bullets struck Scott’s body — five in the back, two in the front — but she couldn’t determine in which order the rounds struck him or from how far away they were fired, she said.

Dr. Shari Klein, a family practice doctor who has been practicing in Las Vegas for about 10 years, was the first of Scott’s physicians to testify. Klein treated Erik Scott for two years, until August 2009. She said he stopped coming to her for treatment because of financial hardship.

She told the jury that during that time he tried to get her to prescribe hydrocodone, which he told her he wanted for depression.

She said he told her he had chronic elbow and knee pain but never mentioned any back pain.

Later in the day, other doctors would testify that Scott told them he had suffered from chronic back pain for more than 15 years as a result of injuries sustained while he was a cadet at West Point coupled with a football injury.

Klein runs what she described as a “concierge” clinic, meaning she keeps the number of patients she sees small so that they have better access to her.

One of the ways that her patients can access her is via e-mail. Some of her e-mail correspondence with Scott was presented to the jury. In those e-mails, Scott told Klein that he had a high tolerance for medication. He said he wanted hydrocodone as a treatment for his depression.

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Dr. Shari Klein, one Erik Scott's physicians, testifies during a coroner's inquest at the Regional Justice Center Wednesday, September 22, 2010. Scott was shot and killed by Metro Police Officers at the Summerlin Costco store on July 10.

In August 2009, he sent an e-mail saying he was suffering from chronic lower back pain and suggested the doctor could use that as a reason to give him the prescription, if she was uncomfortable prescribing it for depression.

Klein testified she never prescribed that medication for him. She said she never prescribed him morphine or any other narcotic. In response to his e-mails, Klein tried to get him to come in for a consultation, but he decided to drop her as his doctor in August 2009 for financial reasons, she said.

Dr. Daniel Kim, whose specialty is pain management, said he began treating Scott on Feb. 2, 2010, for chronic abdominal pain.

Kim said he prescribed medication for Scott that should have taken care of his pain. But about two weeks later, Scott contacted Kim to say he was out of medication. The medicine was supposed to last four weeks, until Scott’s next appointment.

“He doubled up everything that I gave to him,” Kim said.

Kim said he terminated Scott from his clinic and referred him to a list of detoxification centers.

“My conclusion is that he is suffering from an addiction, at the least to hydrocodone, if not to other narcotic substances,” Kim said.

Kim said it was possible for people to be addicted to a narcotic substance and still do their jobs. He said about 5 to 10 percent of people who come to pain clinics might be addicted to their pain medications.

Scott told Kim he had been treating his back pain with common over-the-counter drugs for years but the pain had become unbearable.

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Dr. Daniel Kim, one of Erik Scott's physicians, looks through medical records during a coroner's inquest at the Regional Justice Center Wednesday, September 22, 2010.

Kim said another doctor, a gastroenterologist, had already given Scott a prescription for hydrocodone before he began treating him.

Kim said that after reviewing test results and other medical reports, he couldn’t find any pathology that would explain Scott’s abdominal pain. He attributed it to being a possible symptom of withdrawal from hydrocodone.

The jury also heard about 40 minutes of testimony from Dr. Joseph Gnoyski, who treated Scott for lower back pain with prescription narcotics, which included morphine and hydrocodone starting in February 2010.

He said Scott told him he had suffered back pain for 17 years from a paratrooping accident and from an earlier football injury. But Gnoyski said Scott told him the pain had grown much worse in February, following an automobile accident.

Gnoyski said Scott described his pain as a “10 out of 10” after the auto accident and said he couldn’t function. He said Scott described the pain as if someone hit him with a baseball bat.

Gnoyski said he ordered an MRI for Scott and found Scott had a broken back, an unstable spine and a ruptured disk. Gnoyski said that after discussing various treatment options, Scott didn’t want surgery because it wasn’t guaranteed to be successful and had a number of risks, including the possibility for an increase in pain.

Gnoyski said he saw Scott seven times. Initially, he didn’t follow the treatment, Gnoyski said, but midway through the treatment, Scott began complying with his doctor’s orders.

Gnoyski said Scott’s final visit with him was an informal visit in a hallway on July 1. Scott seemed to be groggy and had stumbled a couple of times, the doctor said.

“After 40 to 50 paces, he regained his composure. I had thought he might not have used his meds appropriately,” Gnoyski said. “My last dealing was to try to get him into my office.”

Gnoyski testified he didn’t think Scott was a drug seeker.

“This guy works out every day. It’s not like he is seeking a buzz just to lie around,” Gnoyski said. “... I don’t believe this man was trying to get a buzz ... It just doesn’t mesh with his character.”

He said Scott was a high-level athletic performer, similar to an acrobat who might be in a Cirque du Soleil show on the Las Vegas Strip.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Gnoyski said.

Gnoyski said there is a difference between someone who is an addict and someone who seems to be an addict who needs drugs for pain. But someone who seems to be an addict will begin to cut back on their medication once they begin to manage that pain.

Gnoyski said when he saw Scott act in a groggy manner, “it wasn’t like he was out of control, that he was going crazy.” He said he seemed to be functional.

Laurent pointedly asked if Gnoyski knew if Scott was getting additional narcotics from any other source. The doctor said he didn’t know.

A report had been filed with a state task force that indicated Scott had received multiple prescriptions for narcotics from different doctors, which Laurent pointed out is a felony in Nevada.

Gnoyski said Scott had a physiological dependency to the narcotics he was taking, but that wasn’t the same as an addiction, which also includes a psychological dependency, he said.

About 2 to 5 percent of people who take such medications become addicted, he said.

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Dr. Joseph Gnoyski, left, one of Erik Scott's physicians, listens to Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Laurent during a coroner's inquest at the Regional Justice Center Wednesday, September 22, 2010.

Gnoyski said that over a period of time, Scott began to get better and that his pain level diminished from a “10 out of 10” to a “two out of 10” on a pain scale.

Laurent asked him if the dosage of morphine that Scott had been taking could have caused him to misunderstand directions. Gnoyski said Scott should have been able to follow directions.

Laurent also showed the jury a letter Gnoyski had drafted to cut Scott off as a patient following the informal July 1 encounter.

Gnoyski said he changed his mind and didn’t send the letter. He decided to have Scott come back into the office for treatment and reduce the amount of hydrocone he was taking and, eventually, the amount of morphine.

A jury of 11, which includes four alternates, is hearing testimony at the inquest. The proceedings are slated to run through the end of this week and possibly spill into next week.

The ACLU and Scott’s family have criticized the inquest process, calling it one-sided. Inquests are not adversarial in nature; rather, they are fact-finding procedures designed to determine the facts surrounding police officer-involved deaths.

Metro has identified the three officers involved as William Mosher, 38, who has been with the department since June 2005; Joshua Stark, 28, with the department since September 2008; and Thomas Mendiola, 23, with the department since March 2009.

The men have been on paid administrative leave since the shooting, in accordance with department policy. All three are patrol officers assigned to the Northwest Area Command.

In addition to the three officers, also expected to testify are dozens of witnesses — both shoppers and employees — who were at Costco at the time of the shooting. Scott’s girlfriend, Samantha Sterner, who was with him at the shopper’s warehouse club store, is also scheduled to take the stand.

Following the day-long inquest, Scott’s family members met briefly with their attorney, Ross Goodman. They then went outside, where Goodman talked to reporters on the east sidewalk outside the Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas.

Goodman told reporters that prosecutors for the Clark County District Attorney’s Office were trying to “character assassinate” Scott.

“Erik Scott worked 60 hours a week. He was interacting with his girlfriend. He was a upstanding guy. And whatever medication that Erik was taking had no effect on him whatsoever,” Goodman said.

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Ross Goodman, attorney for the Scott family, hands a question to Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy during a coroner's inquest at the Regional Justice Center Wednesday, September 22, 2010.

Asked why prosecutors were dwelling on the medication, Goodman said it was because there was no video showing that the officers shot Scott “in cold blood.”

He also dismissed as “questionable” the dramatic final testimony that jurors heard Wednesday from Kullberg.

“All I know is that in interviewing at least 20 to 25 witnesses, Erik didn’t pull a gun or point a gun at anybody,” Goodman said.

Jurors will determine whether the shooting was justifiable, excusable or criminal. Coroner’s juries do not have to be unanimous in reaching their verdict.

Proceedings are schedule to resume at 9 a.m. Thursday.

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  1. Lampshade and LVLawDog,
    You two are WRONG. It has been reported that several witnesses stated that Scott never drew his weapon. Having high levels of morphine in one's blood is NOT a crime punishable by death.

    What would be a justifiable shooting, would be if Scott really did draw his weapon. But we don't know if that happened, now do we? The video mysteriously has been destroyed, or otherwise rendered "unrecoverable," while in Metro's hands. Pretty suspicious. If I were a betting man, I'd bet the witnesses who say he did not reach for his gun were correct.

    But that's what we need a real inquest for -- to find out which of these diametrically opposed versions is the true one. Not this rigged system that so easily has distracted you two from the real issues (ie., What happened to the tape? and, What did the tape really show?). Because, to repeat, just having pain killers in one's blood, is no reason to be shot dead.

  2. Chunky says:

    Again, Mr. Scott created his own problem; Costco didn't do it, the doctors didn't do it and Metro didn't do it.

    Listening to today's testimony made Chunky realize there are a lot more people out there than he thought who are jacked up on prescription drugs.

    People on this level of medication shouldn't even be driving a car much less carrying a weapon around in their pocket.

    That's what Chunky thinks!

  3. DTJ, you explain the faults of this horribly biased "inquest" system very well. After what happened to Mr. Cole, and now Mr. Scott, it appears that the resulting publicity surrounding these two cases may finally cause this absurd system to be reformed. Today's "performance" by the DA's office was embarrassing, disturbing, and extremely disrespectful to true justice.

  4. Peaceperson,
    Thank you, I appreciate it. I'm trying to be fair.

    On another, more specific point: the D.A.'s witness from the coroner's office is shown pointing to a ridiculously simplistic and misleading graphic which states: "Lethal range (of morphine)70~350 ng/ml." But we learn from same graphic that Erik Scott was walking around with 1800 ng/ml in his body. So by definition, the range given, which maxes out 350 for lethality, is not an accurate range. Indeed, according to this story, the witness for the D.A. merely said something to the effect that the levels in Scott were "potentially lethal" (quotes"" from story, not necessarily from witness). It's already known that levels of lethality vary quite widely, exemplified by Scott's alleged high levels in this case. Highlighting such low levels for use on this graphic, and starkly labeling them as "the" lethal range, was a cynical ploy to manipulate to broader public tuning in.

    But lastly, as the witness, whose allegiance and motivations I already question, could not be cross-examined by someone else with expertise in the field, we do not know the credibility of her methodology. But just to play Devil's advocate, please have a look at following explanation on how testing procedures for morphine presence can have significant impact upon, and skew results. Might some of that have been going on here in Scott's case? Might his true numbers not be anywhere as high as the alleged 1800 ??
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morphine#De...

    There can be serious suspicions that the D.A./Coroner's office has presented ginned-up, biased "facts." I would really LOVE to have famed Barry Scheck walk into this process, and have a turn at this cornoner's witness in the same way he shredded the unprofessional, incompetent Dennis Fung, during the OJ trial, once upon a time.

  5. Regardless of which "side" you take here, you must admit;
    This is nothing but a DOG & PONY SHOW.

  6. I didn't know that taking morphine / prescription meds was a death penalty crime --- one that has no need for a judge and jury. I'll see if I can find the NV statute and post back as soon as I find it.

  7. Where is the video?

  8. Since when was Costco a minimum wage job?

  9. Sounds like the guy had a death wish. Morphine is usually administered sublingually to patients on hospice care (i.e. terminally ill). Until the CCTV footage is released, the skeptics will continue to deny Mr. Scott provoked this tragedy.

  10. Why do some of us on this site refer to ourselves in the third person?