Anchorage man sentenced in case of teen heroin overdose
A man who admitted to injecting heroin into a 14-year-old who later died has been sentenced on a single charge related to her death.
Sean Michael Warner, 29, was sentenced to 18 years in prison by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon L. Gleason for the charge of distributing heroin. Warner pleaded guilty to the charge on Aug. 28 after agreeing to a plea deal that included a recommended sentence of 13 to 18 years.
Warner’s plea agreement included admitting to his actions that led to the drug overdose and death of 14-year-old Jena Dolstad, known as J.D. in court documents.
“Had the defendant sought help within any reasonable time, J.D. would be alive today,” U.S. Attorney Karen L. Loeffler wrote in a sentencing memorandum, citing medical toxicologist Charles McKay. “’Medical intervention, even at the time of her noted respiratory distress would have been likely to have resulted in full recovery, given the apparent resilience of [J.D.’s] heart and some neurologic function upon reversal of her cardiac arrest.’ The defendant started J.D. in a death spiral by injecting her with a deadly drug, then he allowed her to die in an attempt to save his own skin.”
Dolstad died on Dec. 29, 2011, two days before her 15th birthday.
Dispute over cause of death
On the night of Dec. 22, 2011, Warner injected Dolstad with heroin at his residence on the 2800 block of Leighton Street, near Turnagain Elementary School, and again in the early morning hours of Dec. 23. She went into “physical distress” around 9:30 a.m., according to court documents, but Warner refused to call 911 until 1:36 p.m.
The exact drug that caused her death was disputed by the defense team of Max Jewett, who was charged with supplying Warner with the heroin that killed Dolstad.
According to court records, Dolstad’s death “was caused by multidrug intoxication.” At the time of her overdose, methamphetamine, cocaine, morphine and Buprenorphine were found in her system, according to an autopsy performed by medical examiner Gary Zientek.
“In Dr. Zientek’s opinion, he could not find the morphine [derived from heroin] would have necessarily been sufficient alone to have caused her death,” Jewett’s defense lawyer Barry Flegenheimer noted in a sentencing memorandum.
Warner was originally charged with manslaughter, tampering with physical evidence, second-degree theft, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and two counts of first-degree distribution of a controlled substance to a minor.
Those charges were dropped by Anchorage prosecutors as a federal case against the two men began. Both were indicted by a federal grand jury on Aug. 23, 2014 on multiple drug charges, including two counts of distribution of a controlled substance to a minor.
Jewett agreed to plead guilty to a single count of drug trafficking conspiracy for distributing methamphetamine and heroin in Alaska between October 2011 and September 2013 in exchange for the rest of the charges to be dropped. He was sentenced by Gleason in May to 10 years in prison.
The road to tragedy
Warner’s family submitted several letters for consideration prior to the sentencing, urging the judge to consider mercy.
Family and friends spoke of a young man with great potential, despite coming from a home with parents who “abused drugs and alcohol, and suffered from mental illness.” As a Navy medic, Warner was sent to Afghanistan and returned home with PTSD and “significant pain from a shoulder injury and other injuries,” which one cousin noted meant a prescription for narcotic painkillers.
“As an RN and a previous psychiatric/at-risk youth counselor, I was keenly aware of the signs of drug or alcohol abuse and there was no evidence of addiction at that point, but I later discovered that such dependence had gradually developed,” she wrote.
She went on to describe the changes became apparent to the rest of his family. By the summer of 2011, she “was bracing [herself] for that phone call that would tell [her] Sean was dead or some other tragedy.” She and others attempted interventions, but nothing worked.
In response to the family’s letters, Loeffler wrote, “While the defendant’s history, including PTSD, may offer an explanation for his drug use, it does not offer any excuse for why he would bring a 14 year old girl into his drug den, inject her with heroin, then when she is clearly in life-threatening distress, refuse to seek help, allowing her to die.”
Loeffler’s sentiment was echoed by Warner’s cousin, who said jail would be beneficial for him.
“I wanted Sean to go to jail so he would be forced to get clean and be safe,” she wrote. “When I visited him at the jail in March 2012, Sean told me he is grateful to be in jail because at least he is alive and sober. Sean’s letters to me continually express humility and gratitude.”
Three and a half years after her death, Dolstad’s friends met Monday to talk about the former Service High student. They say they didn’t get much closure from the sentencing.
Shiann Rodriquez says she was surprised and angry at what she considered a light sentence for Warner.
“He deserves way more than 18 years,” Rodriquez said. “She was my friend and I don’t think it’s right that he got charges dropped. It’s just sad what happened to her.”
Bryanna Early says her friend’s death reshaped her attitude towards drugs.
“It changed me, knowing that life is valuable and it can end real quickly and it can change a lot of stuff,” Early said. “It’s not a game to play with. You do a drug, the next hour you could be dead.”
KTVA 11’s Kate McPherson contributed to this story. Contact her at email@example.com
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