Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death of an Aerosol Huffer

Denise Marten Mugshot

Since the spring, the tragic saga of Denise Marten has been unfolding in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The first story about Denise, published April 9 on local ABC affiliate WQOW was almost humorous. She crashed her blue truck into Eau Claire’s city hall, causing “substantial damage” to the outside of the building. According to police, Denise admitted to “huffing intoxicants” several days before the crash, and was arrested for operating under the influence. She wasn’t hurt, and neither was anyone else. She’s smiling in her mugshot, a cartoonish shiner hardly detracting from her pretty, if slightly worn face. It was the 42-year-old woman’s third intoxicated driving arrest.

The next time Denise was in the news, just nine days later, the story was shorter and bleaker. A friend called police, who arrived to find Denise parked in her driveway, incoherent and possessed of two cans of aerosol keyboard cleaner.

A month later, police visited Denise again, this time after neighbors reported a loud fight. Again, she was incoherent and admitted to drinking and huffing. In her car, police found cans of keyboard cleaner. At the time of this arrest, Denise was between court dates stemming from the city hall crash.

In mid-June, Denise was arrested again, for jumping bail and huffing keyboard cleaner in a local park. Later that month, she was sentenced to two years of probation after pleading no contest to reduced charges in three of the cases against her. She was to face a judge in the city hall incident separately. As part of her probation, Denise “was ordered not to possess aerosol cans.”

Labor Day weekend, police were called to Denise’s aid for the last time. CPR was administered in vain, and Denise died at Eau Claire hospital. Moreso than other drugs, inhalants like keyboard cleaner engage the user in a constant dance with death. The high they provide is the sensation of oxygen depletion in the brain, a near-death experience users can parachute out of with a breath of fresh air.

Denise Marten -- Early photo

As anyone who’s ever been hooked on anything will attest, an order of “stop doing that” is almost as laughable as the label on the aerosol cans themselves, warning that they’re not for getting high with. More than likely, the judge was not the first person to tell Denise to stop huffing. Her Facebook profile shows a woman with a boyfriend, a network of friends who kept posting messages til the end, and two children she cherished. Like in her mugshot–the same one that appeared alongside the story announcing her death–Denise smiled in her pictures. She had faith — a set of images, captioned with prayers, show Denise hugging a statue of Jesus, cigarette in hand. She loved her two cats, Christian music and gardening, her obituary says.

In a state troubled by meth abuse a mom spun rapidly to her death using a household cleaner. Maybe she mistook legality for safety when she picked up a can of instant escape along with some notebooks and pencils. We can’t know what ached inside Denise, causing her, time and again, to seek the headrush that ruined her life. Part of a “hidden population” of addicts, inhalant users can do irreparable damage to themselves before their behavior is ever detected. Treatment is difficult as inhalant addicts tend not to respond to therapy techniques used on alcoholics and drug users. They suffer severe withdrawal symptoms and require a long period of detoxification.

There’s no real moral to this story, besides, perhaps, that behind every smiling mugshot and briefly amusing headline is a preventable family tragedy.

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