SALEM — Just days before she is due to give birth, Susan Douglas is sitting in a jail cell, after being caught for the seventh time since March — three times on Sunday — “huffing” from a can of compressed air she had allegedly stolen.
Jail, a prosecutor suggested on Monday, is “the best of a number of bad alternatives.”
Douglas, 30, who is homeless, had no involvement in the criminal justice system until this past winter, said her lawyer, Patrick O’Malley, during a hearing in Salem District Court.
Then she became the victim of a violent crime, he told Judge Matthew Machera.
Details of that incident were not available, but last October, her estranged husband, Michael Douglas, was arrested on a charge of domestic assault and battery with a dangerous weapon while the two were living together on Rainbow Terrace in Salem. Police had contact with the couple several more times in the following weeks.
“Huffing” from aerosol cans, which can contain solvents or chemical propellants, produces a state similar to that of alcohol, according to information from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is also dangerous, with the potential to cause brain injury and cardiac problems.
In February, Salem police got a call about a woman in the restroom of CVS on Canal Street, inhaling from a can of Dust-Off. Douglas was charged with shoplifting and inhaling toxic vapors.
In March, she was arrested twice in one week for the same thing in Leominster, the Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise reported.
Earlier this month, she was again in Salem, where on the afternoon of June 5, police were called to CVS at 200 Essex St. on a report of a woman seen inside the store inhaling from a can of Dust-Off and who was now walking along Bridge Street, followed by a security guard. Police said they found two more cans on her.
At the time, Salem police tried to file a report of suspected child abuse with the Department of Children and Families, but they were told that they cannot do so for a pregnant woman.
Then, on Sunday, Salem police responded to three calls about Douglas and arrested her twice.
The first call came around 10 a.m., when police and an ambulance were called to the front of the Salem Five branch next to CVS at 426 Essex St. Douglas, visibly pregnant, was taken to Salem Hospital, then released.
Two hours later, police were called back to the same plaza on Essex Street after a customer saw Douglas outside the store, appearing to need medical help. When Patrolman DeeJay Gagnon arrived, he saw Douglas sitting on the ground outside, “staring into space,” said prosecutor Lars Trautman.
Then he heard hissing.
Gagnon took the can away from her and arrested her again on charges of shoplifting and inhaling vapors.
After making bail, Douglas left the station and, police believe, made her way to Wal-Mart. She was found outside of the adjacent Special Thoughts store shortly after 5 p.m., again clutching a can of compressed air.
At the police station, Douglas was placed in a cell, where she retrieved another can of air from under her belly and began inhaling from it until police could get inside and take it from her, according to a police report.
Douglas is due to give birth on Friday. But police were told that they cannot charge her with child endangerment, said Salem police spokesman Lt. Conrad Prosniewski.
Prosecutors, concerned not only for her well-being but that of her unborn child, moved to revoke her release in the earlier cases, suggesting that jail may be the only way to stop her from abusing inhalants.
It’s not optimal, said Trautman, the prosecutor. But Douglas “has shown a disregard not only for the laws of the commonwealth but for the safety of her unborn child.”
O’Malley pleaded with the judge for a chance to have Douglas sent to a mental health facility for an evaluation and treatment rather than jail.
But Machera said his hands were tied by a “no bail” warrant from Leominster District Court, where officials wanted her kept in custody.
The judge set bail on the two new Salem cases at a total of $1,500.
After the bail was announced, Douglas buried her face in her cuffed hands. It was not clear whether she would be able to come up with that amount.
A pretrial hearing is set for July 22.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.