Did a Banker Kill a Handyman at a Caribbean Resort? Or Was It Cocaine?

The New York Times 2 months ago

A banker from Connecticut visiting the Caribbean island of Anguilla with his family in April answered a knock at the door of his resort suite and found an employee who said he had come to fix a sink.

The two men began fighting almost immediately. The tourist, a former football player named Gavin Scott Hapgood, overpowered the smaller employee, Kenny Mitchel, and pinned him until the police arrived. Mr. Mitchel, 27, died soon after, and when a coroner ruled he had been asphyxiated during the struggle, Mr. Hapgood, 44, was charged with manslaughter.

Now a revised autopsy report based on recently released toxicology tests has upended the narrative of what happened at the Malliouhana resort that day, finding that Mr. Mitchel died not from injuries related to the fight, but from a lethal dose of cocaine.

The new report suggests he had so much cocaine in his bloodstream that he was essentially a dying man when he entered Mr. Hapgood’s suite that day.

Kenny Mitchel, left, with his former girlfriend Emily Garlick. 

“Acute cocaine toxicity could have been a potentially independent cause of death in the known circumstances,” reads the report by Dr. Stephen King, who oversaw the autopsy. The revised report, dated Sept. 3, was obtained by The New York Times.

A separate analysis of the new autopsy, conducted at the request of Mr. Hapgood’s lawyers by the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Maryland, Dr. David R. Fowler, led to a similar finding. Also obtained by The Times, the report described cocaine levels in Mr. Mitchel’s bloodstream “twice that commonly accepted to have a fatal outcome,” causing his lungs to fill with blood and suffocating him.

The revised report also seems to bolster the defense claim that Mr. Mitchel was behaving erratically and aggressively, common side effects for that level of drug use. Mr. Hapgood has said Mr. Mitchel threatened him with a knife and demanded money. Mr. Mitchel’s blood also had alcohol levels at twice the legal limit.

It remains unclear how the new toxicology findings will affect the prosecution. The attorney general in Anguilla, Dwight Horsford, has declined to discuss the case, which has moved slowly since Mr. Hapgood’s arrest following the fight on April 13. The defendant was allowed to post a bond of $74,000 and return to his home in Darien, Conn., sparking an outcry on the island that a tourist was receiving preferential treatment.

Mr. Hapgood returned to Anguilla several times last month for preliminary hearings in court that were closed to the public. Those hearings have been adjourned until Nov. 11. Mr. Hapgood, who was traveling with his wife and three children, has been placed on leave by his employer, UBS Investment Bank, pending the outcome of the case.

A GoFundMe page seeking donations to the family raised more than $250,000 before the site pulled it down last week, the Darien Times reported. It is against the site’s policy to allow raising money for a defendant accused of a violent crime.

After months of silence, Mr. Hapgood recently spoke out about the case, repeating his claim of self-defense both outside the Anguilla courthouse and at a news conference in Manhattan.

“We’re hanging on by a thread, to be honest with you,” he told reporters. “It was a terrifying incident.”

The revised autopsy suggests that Mr. Mitchel may likely have died regardless of where he was that afternoon.

Different people react to cocaine differently depending on a variety of factors. But it is a widely accepted finding that 900 nanograms of cocaine per milliliter in the bloodstream is potentially lethal.

Mr. Mitchel’s level was more than twice that amount — 1,900 nanograms per milliliter, according to toxicology reports released in September. Another substance, benzoylecgonine, which is produced when cocaine is broken down, was found in high quantities, — 1,700 nanograms per milliliter — suggesting he had repeatedly used cocaine in the days before his death.

Gavin Scott Hapgood, left, with his lawyer, Juliya Arbisman, at a news conference in Manhattan in August.

The Chief Medical Examiner in New York City, Dr. Barbara Sampson, cautioned in an interview on Tuesday that there were no absolute rules in cases involving cocaine.

“There is no ‘safe level’ of cocaine, and there is no uniformly lethal number, either,” she said. “The interpretation of cocaine levels is very difficult. It has to be analyzed in context with the whole case.”

She said the widely used textbook in this area, “Disposition of Toxic Drugs and Chemical in Man,” offered a range of 900 to 2,100 nanograms of cocaine as potentially lethal.

Dr. Fowler found in his analysis that the cocaine likely caused the asphyxiation that contributed to Mr. Mitchel’s death. In similar cases involving cocaine, the walls of the lung’s air sacs break down and fill with blood, “preventing air exchange,” Dr. Fowler wrote.

A person experiencing this degree of shortness of breath would survive only if treated immediately with a ventilator in a hospital’s intensive-care unit, Dr. Fowler wrote.

Mr. Mitchel’s blood-alcohol level was 0.18, according to the report.

In the days and weeks after his death, Mr. Mitchel’s family and supporters spoke out in his support, describing him as a hard worker and happy father.

Yet, that profile was complicated by an arrest a few weeks before his death, when Mr. Mitchel was charged with rape. The woman who made the complaint in that case was his former girlfriend, Emily Garlick, with whom he shared a young daughter.

She later pulled back the accusation in an interview, saying the incident was an argument and no crime took place. On Tuesday, she continued to defend Mr. Mitchel, saying she did not know him to use cocaine.

“He hid that from me if he did,” Ms. Garlick said on Tuesday. “He went out with his friends the night before. They said he was fine, he was good.”

She said she doubted the new autopsy findings. “How can they just change it like that?” she said.

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