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Springville man faces trial in overdose death

He's accused of failing to get help for drugged woman

PROVO — A Springville man who allegedly watched an acquaintance overdose last summer on his heroin-addiction medication will stand trial for manslaughter.

Three months after a preliminary hearing, 4th District Judge Gary D. Stott ruled last week that sufficient evidence exists for Bryton Kent Nelson, 21, to stand trial on the second-degree felony and a charge of possession of a controlled substance in a drug-free zone, a first-degree felony.

About 9 a.m. on July 9, Nelson summoned paramedics to his home near Springville Middle School after Danielle Hunziker had stopped breathing. After three days in a coma, Hunziker, 19, Provo, died at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center of heart, kidney and liver failure.

According to testimony, Hunziker went to Nelson's home the afternoon of July 8 when she became ill at work. While in Nelson's bedroom, Hunziker ingested methadone, possibly as much as 100 milligrams, which had been prescribed to Nelson by Project Reality as treatment for his heroin addiction. A beginning dosage for addicts is about 30 milligrams.

An autopsy performed four days after Hunziker was hospitalized found methadone, cocaine and opiates in her system. A hospital emergency room doctor testified he believed she died from the toxic effects of methadone.

A high-school friend of Nelson's testified that he visited Nelson about 10 p.m. July 8 and found Hunziker unconscious in Nelson's bedroom. He said Nelson admitted that she had taken his methadone. He said Nelson told him he wanted her to sleep it off. Police say Nelson acknowledged giving Hunziker a decongestant three times during the night to help her breathe.

Nelson's attorney argued that Hunziker willingly took the methadone without Nelson's permission or knowledge while he was out of the room. The attorney also said there was no evidence showing which of the three drugs in Hunziker's system caused her death.

Regardless of whether Hunziker took methadone willingly, prosecutors say Nelson was reckless because he knew the fatal potential of the drug.

In binding Nelson over for trial, Stott agreed.

"The defendant was aware of the dangers of ingesting methadone because of his treatment program and the warning on the bottle, which labeled the substance as poison and potentially fatal to adults," the judge wrote.

Rather than seek immediate medical attention, Nelson opted to "watch and wait" to see if Hunziker improved, the judge said. During that period it was clear Hunziker was unconscious and struggling to breathe, yet Nelson did not seek medical help until she stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest.

Nelson is scheduled to be arraigned on the charges Friday morning. He is currently free on $50,000 bail.

Hunziker's parents also filed a wrongful-death lawsuit last month against Nelson, his parents and the high-school friend who visited the Nelson home that night. The suit alleges all were negligent in Hunziker's death by failing to exercise reasonable care by not seeking medical attention when they became aware of her comalike state.

"Had the decedent, Danielle Hunziker, received medical attention prior to ingestion of methadone or even within a few hours thereafter, such intervention could have been reasonably expected to mitigate her physical damages and would have saved her life," the suit says.

The suit is seeking more than $5 million in damages.