Paul Wilson Streater didn’t take a drink of alcohol, smoke marijuana or snort a line of cocaine before Delray Beach police say he plowed his vehicle into a Dodge Caravan, killing all four of its occupants, two of them children.
Instead, investigators say Streater caused the April 28 crash because he was impaired after “huffing” dangerous chemicals from a can of the household cleaner Dust-Off.
A blood draw revealed Streater, 21, was under the influence of difluoroethane — a clear, colorless, liquefied gas used as a propellant — when he sped his Chevy Silverado to 107 mph a second before rear-ending the Caravan on Federal Highway south of Linton Boulevard, near Lamat Avenue.
But unlike alcohol, where the legal limit is a blood-alcohol level of .08, there is no similar standard when it comes to inhalants and impaired driving. Streater’s lawyer argues that any level of difluoroethane found in his blood is irrelevant to whether he was driving while intoxicated.
Streater was arrested July 24 and remains in the Palm Beach County Jail, where he’s being held on multiple felony charges, including four counts of DUI manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and has asked for a jury trial.
Since 2014, 20 people have been charged with DUI vehicular homicide in Palm Beach County, records show. Of those 20, only Streater has been charged after allegedly becoming impaired by huffing.
That list doesn’t include Steven Warren Barnes, a 61-year-old Lake Worth man serving 8 ½ years in prison after he allegedly huffed Toluene, an industrial solvent, then ran over and killed 3-year-old Priscila Perez-Gaspar as the girl walked with a caretaker on Kirk Road in suburban Lake Worth.
Investigators said following the crash that they believed Barnes was driving under the influence of alcohol, chemical substances or both, but he was not charged with DUI. An empty can of Toluene was found in Barnes’ vehicle.
Barnes was convicted of vehicular manslaughter in August 2014 and will remain in the Liberty Correctional Institution in northwest Florida through Jan. 4, 2021.
Huffers feel a high similar to that of alcohol, said Jaime Snarski, an emergency room doctor at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center.
They inhale hundreds of legal products, including nail removal polish, paint thinner and, even, felt-tip pens. The cheap high — a three-pack of Dust-Off at Walmart runs about $13 — is attractive to abusers.
Snarski said she’s seen people come into her emergency room with chemical burns around their face after huffing.
“This has been going on ever since I can remember,” said Snarski, an ER physician for 15 years. “ We don’t see it frequently, but it’s there.”
Either inhaling or ingesting harmful chemicals is a second-degree misdemeanor in Florida, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Arrests for huffing are somewhat common in Palm Beach County, although they tend to involve the same people. Since Jan. 1, 2016, 20 arrests have been documented by the Palm Beach County Jail among eight men.
Joe David Salinas of Lantana has been arrested 36 times since February 2003, according to jail records. Nearly all of the arrests have been connected to huffing.
Delray Beach police Sgt. Jeffrey Rasor said he’s seen cases where huffers take the nozzle of bottle containing solvents and “spray it directly up their nose.”
Unlike alcohol, where the legal limit is .08, there is no similar standard when it comes to inhalants and impaired driving.
Telltale signs of drunkenness such as glassy eyes or alcohol breath are also not always apparent in those under the influence of aerosol spray, Rasor said.
Streater was released from the scene after his crash and was not arrested until a toxicology report showed the presence of difluoroethane in his blood.
A receipt was found in Streater’s vehicle showing that his passenger had purchased bottles of Dust-Off hours before the fatal crash.
Sam Halpern, Streater’s attorney, contends that the accelerator on his client’s Silverado got stuck, causing the vehicle to pick up speed quickly and crash into the Caravan.
Halpern said Streater was “clearly not impaired,” a claim he said is supported by police releasing his client after the crash. The finding of difluoroethane in Streater’s blood is not relevant, Halpern said, because “there’s drugs that stay in your system a long time.”
Asked at a news conference last week if he believed Streater was impaired when he crashed, Rasor replied: “I think the blood results show that.”
Streater faces up to 15 years and a mandatory minimum of 4 years in prison if convicted on each of the four DUI manslaughter charges he faces.
A Pensacola man was sentenced to 12 years in prison in December after he was found guilty of driving his truck into a home and killing a resident. The man purchased a bottle of Endust -- a spray used to clean electronics -- 10 minutes before the crash.
In March 2017, a Broward man was ordered to spend more than 10 years in prison after he plead guilty to striking and killing a 37-year-old pedestrian. Joshua Stein tested positive for difluoroethane, the same substance found in Streater’s system.