Matthew Phelps: Could A Man Kill in his Sleep?

By C.W.S.

In the middle of the night on September 1st, aspiring pastor Matthew Phelps claims he awoke from a dream to find he and his wife covered in blood. Lauren Ashley-Nicole was pronounced dead from several stab wounds after Phelps called 911 in a dispatch call that has been made public. In the recording, Phelps can be heard speaking slowly and quietly, sounding like he is in shock. He trails off when he says, “I think I killed my…”

When the dispatcher asks him what happened, he replies, “I had a dream, and then I turned on the lights, and she's dead on the floor." The call draws on for a painful seven minutes, with Phelps slowly becoming more and more lucid as he waits for police and paramedics to arrive. He tells the dispatcher that “I took more than I should” of Coricidin, a cough and cold medicine. He continues: “I know it can make you feel good. A lot of times I can’t sleep at night.”

As the dispatcher works to keep Phelps on the line, he asks if Lauren is breathing, and Matthew says she is not. He states that he is too afraid to go near her again. The amount of blood is alarming to him. He starts to sob gently, “She didn’t deserve this. Why?”

Phelps was arrested without incident and is being held without bail.

From images and posts found on Facebook, Lauren and Matthew, both in their late 20s, seemed genuinely happy. The couple shared a deep love of Star Wars, even incorporating the theme into their wedding. They seemed fun-loving. They seemed like they didn't take themselves too seriously. They were members of the Hope Lutheran Church, where Lauren taught Sunday school. Matthew had graduated from Clear Creek Bible college and was studying to become a pastor.

 Lauren and Matthew Phelps

Lauren and Matthew Phelps

Cough syrup psychosis?

Phelps seems to imply that the murder was due to his taking a high dose of an over-the-counter cough syrup. Is this a possibility?

The active ingredient in question is called Dextromethorphan, or DXM, which is what Phelps was probably referring to when he stated that it “can make you feel good.” When taken at higher than recommended doses, DXM can cause euphoria, as well as less fortunate side effects like nausea and insomnia. When the amount consumed reaches 15 times the recommended dose, side effects like black outs, hallucinations, and dissociation can occur. But could DXM lead a man kill his wife and have no memory of it?

Psychosis is a state of disorientation and hallucination that causes a person to dissociate from reality and commit acts that are out of character. They will have difficulty communicating and relating to others. Sometimes this psychosis can take a violent turn.

Frequent and long-term usage of DXM at high doses could possibly lead to toxic psychosis. So, was Phelps taking this cough syrup at high doses and frequently? This information is yet unknown.

Bayer, the parent company of Coricidin, released a statement extending their sympathies to the family. They continued, "Patient safety is our top priority, and we continually monitor adverse events regarding all of our products. There is no evidence to suggest that Coricidin is associated with violent behavior." 

A cough syrup murder defense in Seattle

In 2011, a Seattle physician named Dr. Louis Chen was charged with the murder of his partner, Eric Cooper, and their 2-year-old son, Cooper Chen. Chen stabbed Eric over 177 times and cut the throat of Cooper in the middle of the night. Chen’s attorney claimed that he was in the middle of a cough syrup-induced psychosis due to a build-up of DXM that was bolstered by depression and paranoia.

However, Chen’s partner was in the process of leaving him, and Chen feared both a custody battle of their son, as well as Eric reporting his prescription drug abuses (outside of the cough syrup). The defense argued for the minimum mandatory sentence of 24 years, but the judge, weighing the other possible motives, sentenced Chen to 49 years.

Homicidal Sleepwalking

There is another possibility outside of the cough syrup defense that seems more likely. It is possible that Phelps, who referenced his difficulty with sleeping, could suffer from a parasomnia. According to WebMD, parasomnias are “disruptive sleep disorders that can occur during arousals from REM sleep or partial arousals from non-REM sleep. Parasomnias include nightmares, night terrors, sleepwalking, confusional arousals, and many others.”

 Kenneth Parks leaves the court room after he is aquitted

Kenneth Parks leaves the court room after he is aquitted

Specifically, it appears that REM Sleep Behavior Disorder could have some overlap with this case. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “People who suffer from REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD) act out their dreams. They physically move limbs or even get up and engage in activities associated with waking. Some engage in sleep talking, shouting, screaming, hitting or punching.” So, could Matthew Phelps be telling the truth? His case would not be the first to utilize the “sleepwalking defense.”

Perhaps the most well-known case of “homicidal sleepwalking” happened in Toronto in 1997. Kenneth Parks was 23 when he murdered his wife’s parents, Barbara Ann and Dennis Woods, after waking very early on a May morning and driving 23km from his home in Pickering to a Toronto suburb. Parks entered the couple’s home with his key and then used a tire iron to knock his mother-in-law unconscious. He then stabbed her and his father-in-law with a knife found in the kitchen. After they were both dead, he ran upstairs and stood outside of his teenaged sister-in-law’s room but did not enter. He ran back down the stairs and drove to the police station. It was 4:34am when he arrived.

Parks was covered in blood and shaking. He told police, “I just killed someone with my bare hands; oh my God, I just killed someone; I’ve just killed two people; my God, I’ve just killed two people with my hands; my God, I’ve just killed two people. My hands; I just killed two people. I killed them; I just killed two people; I’ve just killed my mother- and father-in-law. I stabbed and beat them to death. It’s all my fault.” Both his hands were cut so severely that tendons were severed in both palms, but Parks did not appear to be in any pain. According to Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow of Psychology Today, this is an example of something called dissociative analgesia, an extreme reduction of pain by the body without pain killers. This state is known to occur when a patient is sleepwalking.

The article goes on to state: “After careful examination of the case, the experts could find no other explanation of the crime than sleepwalking. Kenneth underwent a series of sleep tests and psychological tests. The electroencephalography (EEG) scans showed that Kenneth had some abnormal brain activity during deep sleep, periods of partial awakenings, which is indicative of parasomnia. Since there allegedly is no way to fake one’s own EEG results, and Kenneth had appeared to feel no pain when he arrived at the police station, it was determined that he was sleepwalking when he attacked his in-laws.”

Experts testified that a variety of specific factors contributed to the crime: Park’s anxiety, his familiarity with the route to this in laws’ home, and his intention to fix their furnace, something he had been thinking about the day before. These several factors caused him to sleep-drive to their home where he was startled by them and proceeded to kill them out of that fear. Because the factors were so specific, and because he had no history of psychosis, he was let go on the belief that he would not commit another murder, and he didn’t. Here are seven other examples of trials that used the sleep walking defense.

 Lauren Ashley-Nicole Phelps

Lauren Ashley-Nicole Phelps

Since the murder of Lauren happened so recently, we do not have any information about any possible motive, but so far it has been difficult to find one. Friends and family seem completely shocked by Phelp’s actions. Lauren’s Facebook is flooded with posts recalling their favorite memories of Lauren, as well as their disbelief at the sudden loss.

Of course, it is certainly more likely that there was an unknown motive at work, and investigators may very well discover it soon. Perhaps the 911 call was an elaborate ploy by Phelps to absolve himself of the murder, making it seem as if cough syrup were to blame. It is extremely unlikely that the cough syrup sent Phelps into a psychosis so profound that he violently murdered the woman he loved. It is also extremely unlikely that he has parasomnia so severe that he acted out a violent dream on his sleeping wife. However, there is a disbelief so apparent in Phelp’s voice as he speaks to the dispatcher that I am apt to believe that maybe, just maybe, he really was not conscious during the crime. But feelings don’t add up to evidence.  

Phelp’s next court appearance is set for September 25th. He has not yet entered a plea.

You can donate to Lauren’s memorial fund here: