Clinic Locations

Woolcock Sleep Clinic
Phone: (02) 9114 0000
Address: 431 Glebe Point Road, Glebe, NSW, 2037 Email: reception@woolcock.org.au
Royal Prince Alfred Hospital
Phone: (02) 9515 6655
Address: Level 11, Main Block, Missenden Road, Camperdown, NSW, 2050
Integrated Sleep Health
Phone: (02) 9238 2209
Address: MLC Building, Level 57, 19-29 Martin Place, NSW, Sydney, 2000 Email: info@isleephealth.com.au

Professor Ron Grunstein

Professor of Sleep Medicine

MBBS, MD, PhD, FRACP

Did Stilnox and alcohol cause Phoebe Handsjuk to slither expertly into an apartment block garbage chute ?

Posted: January 2, 2015

At the Woolcock Clinic, several of our clinical team have specialised for some years debunking claims of drug-induced sleep-walking being blamed for all sorts of criminal activity including rape, murder, armed robbery, walking naked through hotels and even failing to win a swimming gold medal in the 2012 Olympics (in sports-mad Australia, that is a criminal offence or should be).  We call manifestations of this disease, Stilnoxitis. This disease has had long legs but it is the result of some reality (all hypnotic drugs can trigger sleepwalking-like states in  a small minority of the population especially if combined with certain other drugs or alcohol), media beat ups, misleading pseudoscience activists with a barrow to push and some bizarre responses by drug regulators. Like all drugs Stilnox and related compounds should be used in the right way, in the right dose and in the right patient. Still the curious array of people who have blamed bad behaviour in all its glory on this drug reflects the “HEY< I’M THE VICTIM HERE” nature of our modern society. From the Kennedy clan’s errant driving  (before you ask, no Stilnox was not around in 1963 and is not to blame), to the aptly named REM guitarist, Peter Buck, who trashed a BA flight from London to New York to rugby league bad boys, it’s the Stilnox that’s at fault not the multiple drug use, alcohol, uppers, downers and general innate craziness of some. Poor Heath Ledger was alleged to be a victim of Stilnox (Ambien in the US) till the CSI-New York guys could not find the drug in his system (there were others).

More recently, we, together with experts in a number of countries, have tried to counter the activities of certain professional “expert witnesses” and their associates who continue to ply their trade claiming that individuals can get off murder or rape charges by simply stating that their use of alcohol causes sleepwalking and therefore any acts afterwards are involuntary. These professional “expert witnesses” support their activities by flawed data analyses highlighted by our recent critique of their work  Alcohol and Sleep Review:Flawed Design, Methods and Statistics Cannot Support Conclusions” by Pressman, Mark; Grunstein, Ronald; Mahowald, Mark; Schenck, Carlos; Montplaisir, Jacques; Cramer Bornemann, Michel; Zadra, Antonio; Buchanan, Peter, which  has been accepted in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Recently we were intrigued by the bizarre death of a young Melbourne woman at the bottom of a garbage chute which has been deemed an accident by a Melbourne coroner who implicated her use of alcohol and the hypnotic, Stilnox (Zolpidem) as the cause. Phoebe Handsjuk was found dead in 2010 in the chute at a St Kilda road apartment building. Victorian coroner Peter White  found Ms Handsjuk was likely in a “sleep walking state” when she entered the chute due to a combination of alcohol and prescription medication Stilnox. Coroner White said the evidence did not suggest that she intended to kill herself or the involvement of another party. He said a “catastrophic severance injury” to her lower right leg was the major contributing factor to her death.

According to The Age last month, the Handsjuk case has intrigued Melbourne because of the 24-year-old’s beauty, the bizarre manner of her death and her relationship with well-known events promoter Antony Hampel, who was 19 years her senior. Mr Hampel is also the son of a Supreme Court Judge and stepson of another member of the judiciary. Phoebe’s grandfather a retired detective has spent considerable resources trying to prove that she was the victim of foul play and not an accident (see photo below of simulation by investigators and report from Herald Sun).

garbage chute

Superficially, it seems unlikely that sleepwalking from alcohol and Stilnox could have led to Phoebe accidently heading down a long garbage chute and have her leg fatally cut open by a blade in the garbage compressor. The reality is that these events from Stilnox are rare and probably more common in genetically vulnerable people. More importantly, it is difficult to undertake very complex tasks require great agility while under the influence of such drugs. (Phoebe had a blood alcohol of 0.16). The Coroner’s report is lengthy and our team will be having a good look at the conclusions. Interestingly, no expert on sleepwalking was called as a witness but 3 well-respected forensic toxicology  experts were examined simultaneously in what was described as a “hot tub conversation” (I kid you not, its in the report). I hope that is a euphemism or at least the temperature was not too high.

This ultimately is the tragic death of a young vulnerable woman with a range of mental health problems and complex relationships. An important role of the Coroner is to determine the cause of death and what lessons can be learnt from the case. Has Coroner White potentially made an unsafe verdict and recommendations in a case where it seems the police investigation had flaws and crucial CCTV information was not found  ?– more later.