They were acts of a desperate man.
A man hunkered on the ledge of a bridge, folding knife half-cocked in an L against his throat, suicide notes tucked into his dark coat.
He was depressed; documents collected by law enforcement show there were threats, both to himself, to his ex, to police who might get in his way. But part of the dark cloud behind those last few days for Chase Kolstad was cast by an addiction so devastating it has gripped the Winona community like no other.
Documents obtained by the Winona Post that were never given to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), despite a court warrant, show the synthetic drug plant food may have played a major role in pushing Kolstad over the edge.
Hours before he was shot, Kolstad communicated with a friend, desperate to find the drug. When he couldn’t, the threats of homicide grew alarming.
“I’m too sick to do anything, I have money but can’t find [any drugs],” he wrote. He spoke of problems with a friend that prevented him from buying the drug, his agitation growing.
“If I don’t get high right now I’m going to kill [three names redacted] and they’re all gonna get stabbed at least 30-40 times each,” Kolstad wrote.
And then: “I need a gun, now!” It was his last communication with the friend recorded before his death.
Plagued by addiction
Less than two weeks before the shooting, Kolstad overdosed on the drug called plant food, or mephedrone.
Police were called to a residence on a report that he had injected the drug into his arm with a needle, and a friend said within 30 seconds he was on the ground and unresponsive. The friend flushed most of the leftover drugs down the toilet, but saved a little so that law enforcement officials could test it and use the information to assist in medical treatment.
According to the police report, Kolstad bought the drug from an Internet site, and had been told it was a legal substance very similar to plant food, but with a milder effect on the user. Field tests showed the drug was indeed mephedrone.
Hospital staff found a syringe, cigarette filters and foil pouches in his pockets, and Kolstad reportedly told a nurse’s aide that he used the filters to smoke drugs, but wouldn’t say what substances he had smoked.
Threats of suicide grew intense by September 13, when Kolstad called a friend and said he was going to overdose on drugs using a needle. The friend then heard a loud thump and the phone went dead. Police were called and a K-9 unit was used to search for Kolstad at Latsch Island, but he was not found. The Winona Police Department worked with Kolstad’s mother to write up a missing person report, and worked to contact known friends to see if he could be located, even having La Crosse officers check an apartment where he might have gone. They found vehicle descriptions of cars that Kolstad might be driving or riding along in, and forwarded the information to neighboring police and sheriff’s departments.
That night, Winona Police found Kolstad’s Facebook page, fleshing out the only information law enforcement officials have had access to from the site, the only public portion of his account. It was the first threatening statement of many that would come over the next hours, and said simply: “I’m going and I’m taking the four of you with me, one at a time. TONIGHT.”
Outside the Winona area, plant food, or the newly illegal synthetic drug mephedrone, is virtually unheard of.
But on the streets in the Winona region, just about every kid knows what plant food is, and drug treatment officials and child protection advocates fear the highly addictive substance has taken hold of area youth.
Those who use the drug often become extremely paranoid and hallucinate. They frequently can’t care for themselves -- they don’t sleep, barely eat, and can become severely dehydrated. The effects of overdose can be fatal, and last summer when related police reports peaked, Winona Health reported an average of six overdose cases a week in the emergency room.
The hallucinations have prompted bizarre calls to police, with users fearing werewolves, aliens, robbers, robot bugs and strangers out to get them. One man even fired a gun into a residential neighborhood, hallucinating someone was trying to steal his car.
In two months last summer, Winona County Human Services investigated 24 cases of children living with an addicted parent, forced to remove at least 90 percent of those children from the home. It was a dramatic spike, numbers that exceeded even the episode of methamphetamine addiction seen years ago, a drug that plant food is often compared to.
The effects of heavy use are not fully understood by officials, but it is clear that mephedrone can drastically change a person’s character, mood, personality and mental state. “Their thought processes don’t clear for days or weeks, some of them don’t clear at all,” said former Human Services Director Julie Thompson. “I’ve been around a long time, and this is one of the worst outbreaks of something I’ve ever seen.”
Hiawatha Valley Mental Health counselor Todd Hoffe agreed. “It just changes their personality so much,” he said. “It happens so fast. One of the things kids are telling me is that even after the first time you use it, you want to use it again.”
When BCA officials interviewed officers who were at the scene when Kolstad was shot, they asked about what plant food is and what it does to users. Goodview Officer Travis Volkman said hallucinations are common, and that the drug has caused some extremely paranoid behavior heard in 911 calls and other police interaction with users. “Yes, it’s... it’s severe,” he said. “It’s the worst drug I’ve ever seen.”
Law enforcement and drug treatment officials have worked hard to get the word out about the dangers of the new drug that has promised, and delivered, devastating effects. “Parents need to get educated, first,” said Hoffe. “I do think that everybody needs to be talking about this, in schools and in homes and with coaches. I’m going to talk to anybody who will listen.”
The drug can cause brain bleeding, abnormal constriction of blood vessels, siezures and even comas. Months ago, Hoffe expressed dire concerns that plant food addiction would soon grow even more frightening. “I’m afraid that we could have some kids dying of this stuff,” he said.
And while Winona has yet to see a fatal overdose involving the powerful synthetic compound, one young man who spiraled out of control in its grips has certainly been lost, leaving a daughter without a father, a mother without a son, and a community grappling for answers.