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In drug death trial, defense witnesses testify to Unity man's narcotic use

| Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, 10:57 p.m.

A Unity man whom witnesses described as a known heroin and narcotics user could have survived an otherwise lethal dose of heroin, had he developed a high enough tolerance to opiates, according to a pharmaceutical toxicologist.

Samuel Christner, 45, instead might have succumbed to toxic chemicals from “huffing” aerosol substances, Michael A. Zemaitis testified on Thursday during the fourth day of Michael Ulysses Peterson's trial in Westmoreland County.

Peterson, 42, of Mt. Pleasant and Garrin Ullrich-Stiffler, 27, of Youngwood are charged by state police with drug delivery resulting in death, possession with intent to deliver and conspiracy.

Peterson is the first of the two to go on trial. Police said he sold Christner, who was his cousin, the fatal dose of heroin at the Youngwood Sheetz on Feb. 5, 2014. Ullrich-Stiffler testified he drove Peterson to meet Christner in hopes Peterson would pay him with heroin.

Zemaitis, a witness for defense attorney Mike DeMatt, testified although Christner's morphine level was high enough to be fatal at the time of his Feb. 5 death at his home, he could have survived if he had developed a tolerance to the drug.

Other defense witnesses testified Christner used heroin and frequently tried to get prescription narcotics.

Peterson's wife, Bethany, testified she saw Christner inject heroin on more than one occasion. One of Christner's former co-workers, Candy Thompson of Greensburg, testified Christner often asked her to help him secure prescription narcotics.

“He was always trying to find stuff,” Thompson testified. “He did heroin. He would always be asking for Vicodin or oxys or Percocets, any kind of pain medication.”

Under cross-examination by District Attorney John Peck, Zemaitis acknowledged that despite Christner's history of drug use, he had no way of determining his tolerance to heroin.

“Do you have sufficient evidence to give us Samuel Christner's level of tolerance on Feb. 5?” Peck asked.

“No, I do not,” Zemaitis testified.

Bethany Peterson testified Christner inhaled chemicals from aerosol cans to get high.

Zemaitis testified the practice, known as “huffing,” produces a high from the propellants contained in the cans. It can be deadly, he said.

Although an aerosol can was found on the bathroom sink near Christner's body in his Unity home, Zemaitis said the toxicology tests performed as part of Christner's autopsy did not screen for the presence of chemicals associated with huffing.

“It wouldn't cover the solvents and some other designer drugs,” Zemaitis testified.

Jurors are expected to begin deliberations Friday before Westmoreland Judge Meagan Bilik Defazio.

Liz Zemba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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