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2017, September 1: A Waking Nightmare

It was not the sort of call that a 911 dispatcher expects to get:

"I think I killed my..." Phelps said.

"What do you mean by that? What happened?" the dispatcher responded.

"I had a dream and then I turned on the lights and she's dead on the floor," Phelps told the dispatcher.

"How? How? How?" the dispatcher asked.

"I have blood all over me and there's a bloody knife on the bed. I think I did it. I can't believe this," Phelps said.

"She's not moving. Oh my God. She didn't deserve this," Phelps said.

Matthew Phelps
Matthew Phelps... courtesy of the Raleigh Police. [Larger version here]

The 911 call was made just after 1:10AM on Friday, September 1, 2017, by a resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. Matthew Phelps told the dispatcher he had awoken to find his wife, Lauren, on the floor next to the bed, apparently stabbed to death... with blood on himself and the knife on the bed. Dried blood. He didn't know if she was still alive or not; she wasn't moving, and he was too frightened to look closer.

        Over the course of the seven minute call, Phelps also stated that he had taken a large dose of a cold and cough medicine called Coriciden, because he had trouble sleeping... he didn't know what time it was when he called. By the end of the call, he had begun sobbing.

        His wife was taken to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Shortly after 6AM, Phelps was charged with murder and taken under arrest.

        Given the situation, it's clear that Phelps will make a claim to possibly killing his wife while in a sleeping state; and, strange though that claim may sound, it's not a new one.

Deadly Sleepwalker?

        High-functioning somnambulism -- people performing complex activities while asleep -- is a known, though not fully understood, phenomena. When a person goes to sleep, their brain usually shuts down the body's ability to receive commands from the brain before deep sleep and dreaming kicks in. On rare occasions this doesn't happen, and the person will act out their dreams. In extreme cases the person can appear to be awake, with eyes open... but what they see, hear, and feel is interpreted through their dream state, and their reactions are based on the dream world they are currently experiencing.

        Reports of complex sleepwalking go back at least to 1851 when Charles Dickens -- yes, that Charles Dickens -- gathered a collection of then known reports of strange sleepwalking behavior, including climbing out of windows to rooftops to walk around before climbing back down into rooms. In more recent history, a 2009 issue of Sleep Medicine told of a woman in a sleeping state that apparently got out of bed to turn on her computer and draft and send three emails before returning to bed... she only found out she had done it when one of her friends contacted her about the emails the day after. So people are quite capable of performing very complex actions while being fully asleep though, thankfully, it is a rare occurrence. What is strange, however, is that for how rare such an occurrence is, that since 1981 no less than three other people have claimed to have woken to find they had killed people while asleep!

  • In 1981, Elaina Steinburg was stabbed 26 times by her husband Steven in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. She died, and he initially claimed that burglars had killed her... but later claimed he was sleepwalking when he did it. He was found not guilty of premeditated murder, though it is argued that it was a clever lawyer that mostly got him off rather than his claim of sleepwalking.
  • In 1987, out-of-work and out-of-luck insomniac Kenneth Parks rose from bed to drive 23km to the home of his wife's parents, where he entered the house and choked, beat, and stabbed the older couple to death. He then drove to the police station, covered in blood, and told them several times that he had just killed two people. Experts determined that due to stress he had entered a sleepwalking state, and drove to the house to fix his in-laws' furnace, which was a job he had promised to do... but when surprised by them, he automatically attacked. Parks was acquitted of murder, but debate over whether it was the right choice continues.
  • In 1999, Scott Falater stabbed his wife Yarmila 44 times, held her head under water in their swimming pool and then hid the knife and bloody clothes in his car... then told police he didn't remember any of it because he had been sleepwalking. Falater was found guilty less than three weeks later, mainly for one reason: one of Falater's co-workers stated that Falater had been talking about the Kenneth Parks case above a few weeks before he killed his wife. (oops.)

Now, obviously, I will have to expand on these brief accounts at a later date, but you get the point: the "I killed someone while sleepwalking" excuse has been used quite a few times in recent history so, naturally, police are going to be very suspicious of it.

Motives and Methods

        Two Reasons Kenneth Parks was acquitted of the murders he committed in 1987 was that he had a known history of sleepwalking behaviors, and EEG scans of his brain taken after the incident showed periods of partial awakening in states of deep sleep. As of the moment, some articles exploring Matthew Phelps' social media sites have claimed that he has stated he has had strange sleeping patterns since childhood, with intense dreams sometimes leading to sleepwalking. Of course, if this was a premeditated murder, all of this could have been invented and planted in advance... so it's unlikely to help unless verified by people who have known him since childhood.

        The claim that the cold medicine might have induced the sleepwalking state -- which, not surprisingly, the company producing the medicine was quick to deny -- would possibly bypass the need for a strong history of sleepwalking. Except: Coriciden has no known circumstances in which it has ever induced sleepwalking. All known side effects, and all known drug interactions with Coriciden, including having alcohol in your system while using it, just make a person sleep deeper. In comparison, the woman who got up to send off emails in 2009 was using Ambien, which has side effects that can impair thinking and reactions, and specifically has been known to cause people to have no memory of complex actions performed under its influence... so, yeah, Ambien has the potential to cause a form of sleepwalking. But not Coriciden according to anything I can find.

        So Phelps has a long battle ahead of him if he is to prove he performed his actions unconsciously... but he may also run into some of the debate that has developed since Kenneth Parks was acquitted. Quite simply, a willingness to kill a person you know in any state of awareness may now be considered criminal intent to begin with, as killing a loved one is not expected to be a normal desire to act on. Remember how Parks claimed to have been startled while in a sleepwalking state? Psychologists have started to question this idea; after all, exactly how far does being 'startled' work as an excuse when you proceed to choke, beat and stab two people until they are dead? So, even if Phelps can prove he was sleepwalking, he may still have to find a way to justify his final actions... assuming he actually committed the crime, of course. But we'd best leave that call up to the police!