A forensic toxicologist tells PEOPLE that the cold medicine taken by a North Carolina aspiring pastor accused of fatally stabbing his wife in the middle of the night can cause hallucinations in high concentrations that are similar to those caused by the street drug PCP.
According to New York-based forensic toxicologist Dr. Richard Stripp, the cold medicine Coricidin contains both dextromethorphan and chlorpheniramine. When abused recreationally, the cold medicine can cause euphoria, agitation, psychoses and dissociative phenomena.
“Dextromethorphan is a dissociative anesthetic that is designed to be an anesthetic, and can cause out of body experiences and one can lose their ability to sense pain,” Stripp explains to PEOPLE. “Chlorpheniramine is a cough suppressant and that particular drug is abused, and the reason it is abused is if you take high levels of it, the drug’s properties are similar to PCP.”
PCP (or Phencyclidine, known on the street as “angel dust”) and “drugs like that are dissociative anesthetics. It is conceivable that someone who had taken a large dose could have experienced hallucinations and exhibited behavior that we would consider outside of their normal characteristics.”
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Matthew Phelps, 28, of Raleigh, called 911 early Friday morning and said his wife of less than a year, Lauren, was dead on their bedroom floor covered in blood.
“I had a dream and then I turned on the lights and she’s dead on the floor,” he says in a 911 call obtained by PEOPLE. “I have blood all over me and there’s a bloody knife on the bed and I think I did it. I can’t believe this.”
He told the dispatcher through tears that his wife wasn’t breathing and that he was afraid to get close to her — “I’m so scared,” he said.
Phelps said during the 911 call that he had taken too much cold medicine.
“I took more medicine than I should have,” he said. “I took Coricidin Cough and Cold because I know it can make you feel good. A lot of times I can’t sleep at night. So, I took some.”
Phelps says he has no memory of allegedly stabbing his wife, who was a Sunday school teacher.
Phelps, who was studying to be a pastor, is charged with murder and is being held at Wake County Detention Center without bail, a jail spokesperson told PEOPLE.
He appeared in court on Tuesday alongside his attorney, Joe Cheshire, who said, “There’s a lot to this story I believe that will be told in the future.”
Stripp tells PEOPLE he knows of no past case of alleged homicide involving the use of Coricidin and would not speculate on whether such a defense might work for Phelps.
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“I’ve seen cases where these drugs have been abused, over the counter, and there have been issues, but I’ve never seen a case like this where someone commits murder under the influence of the drug,” Stripp says. “I have seen cases where people on PCP commit murder. Violent behavior is also a potential outcome of someone being under the influence of PCP. It impairs one’s ability to behave rationally.”
Legal Expert: Cold Medicine Could Be Viable Court Defense
A North Carolina defense attorney told PEOPLE that being under the influence of cold medicine might have merit as a defense in court.
“The idea that certain meds can get into your system and cause you to do things that you’re not aware of is completely possible, said Chris Beechler, of Beechler Tomberlin in Winston-Salem.
Beechler said that using the cold medicine claim as a defense could land Phelps with a lesser charge or, in very rare cases, a not guilty verdict. He said the defense could argue automatism, which holds that Phelps was unconscious during the alleged crime and “was unable to control his physical actions.”
“It is generally not a legal excuse for a crime but if you’re in a mental state where you cannot premeditate, deliberate and form specific intent to kill, then you cannot be convicted of first-degree murder,” Beechler said.
“The other option is known as voluntary intoxication, when a person ingests — whether it’s alcohol or drugs — anything,” he said.
In the wake of the incident, Bayer, the company that produces Coricidin, issued a statement to PEOPLE.
“Bayer extends our deepest sympathies to this family,” officials reportedly said in the statement. “Patient safety is our top priority, and we continually monitor adverse events regarding all of our products. There is no evidence to suggest that Coricidin is associated with violent behavior.”
• With reporting by CHAR ADAMS