Expert witnesses called to testify in Okerman case

By Tina Snell, Staff Writer

Two witnesses were called to testify in the Warren John Okerman omnibus hearing Friday, June 22. Dr. Kelly Mills, Ramsey County assistant medical examiner, testified for the prosecution (Assistant County Attorney Todd Kosovich) and Dr. John Plunkett, a general and forensic pathologist, for the defense (Public Defender Scott Wonderlich).

Warren John Okerman
Warren John Okerman

Okerman was previously charged with third degree murder in the death of Leslie Peterson in Little Falls when he allegedly gave her methamphetamine June 1, 2012. She was last seen alive in the early morning hours of June 2, 2012, and was discovered deceased at approximately 6:30 p.m. June 2, 2012.

The charge was dismissed by Judge Conrad Freeberg in August 2013, but granted the prosecution an opportunity to file an amended complaint.

The June 20 omnibus hearing was to hear from expert witnesses on their opinion on whether Peterson died from heart disease or from a lethal does of methamphetamine.

Dr. Mills said that methamphetamine mimics the fight or flight response in humans, increasing heart rates and blood pressure. It prolongs that increase beyond natural conditions, causing a lack of oxygen which would cause arrhythmia, a problem with the heart rate.

The doctor documented that Peterson, a diabetic, also had arteriosclerotic heart disease, or a build-up of cholesterol and plaque in her arteries which did contribute to her death.

“Her heart was not getting the necessary oxygen it needed anyway,” she said. “The drug increased her blood pressure, making the heart work even harder.”

Mills also said she had an enlarged heart that was in a chronic state of deprivation.

Mills said she found 0.37 mg/L of methamphetamine in Peterson’s system and that lethal limits range from 0.09 – 18 mg/L, according to Basalt reports.

“But, methampheta-mine doesn’t have a dose-related level of toxicity. Everyone is different,” Mills said.

While Mills said Peterson was not healthy at the time of her death, she didn’t feel that Peterson’s heart disease was the cause.

“Meth was the acute participating reason for her death,” she said.

On the stand, Plunkett said Mills should have gathered evidence from all of Peterson’s organs for further testing.

“Peterson’s body was released for cremation June 3, 2012,” said Plunkett. He said if there were to be questions, Mills could not go back to do further tests.

When asked by Wonderlich if Mills could have reached a conclusion to the cause of death, Plunkett said “No.”

“Leslie Peterson had heart disease which causes death, an enlarged heart weighing about 1 1/2 pounds which was hypertensive and dilated. That could cause sudden and unexpected death,” he said.

“She also used meth. I cannot determine if it caused or contributed to her death. While it was at a toxic level, it was not necessarily lethal,” Plunkett said. He said he didn’t believe one could determine if it was one thing or another that killed Peterson.

Plunkett said he would have done more testing.

“If there had been no heart disease, the meth probably would have caused her death,” he said. “But not with her heart disease.”

He said it was rare to die from a 0.37 toxicity of methamphetamine.

“I think Mills came to the wrong conclusion,” he said.

Freeberg gave Wonderlich until July 11 to submit more evidence. He gave Kosovich another two weeks, or until July 25 to submit his evidence. After that, Freeberg would have approximately 30 days to make a decision on whether or not it was meth or heart disease that killed Peterson.