HAMPDEN, Maine — Muscle relaxers taken by a Hampden teen before he became upset and ran off into a local gravel pit contributed to his death from hypothermia, the state’s chief medical examiner concluded in a recently completed autopsy report.
The report, prepared by Chief Medical Examiner Margaret Greenwald, cites accidental environmental hypothermia as the cause of 17-year-old Nathan Clark’s death last spring in a Hampden gravel pit.The report does not change the Penobscot County district attorney’s intent to pursue charges against Michael Joseph Fortunato for unlawful furnishing of drugs, including muscle relaxers, at a gathering attended by Clark the day before he was reported missing. The District Attorney’s Office has indicated the charges are not connected to Clark’s death.
Clark, who was reported missing by his father on March 22, last was seen around 11 that night in a gravel pit on Back Winterport Road by a medic in the LifeFlight helicopter, which was flying overhead. After being discovered by the chopper’s spotlight, the teen reportedly hid.
As word spread that he was missing, the teen became the focus of several searches involving state game wardens, police, tracking dogs, volunteer search and rescue groups and friends and family. His body wasn’t found until five days later, on March 26.
According to the autopsy report obtained Friday by the Bangor Daily News, Clark became hypothermic after he apparently slipped and fell into a stream while intoxicated with the muscle relaxer baclofen.
“The levels of baclofen in the blood are approximately 10 times therapeutic levels,” Greenwald wrote in her report. That amount, she noted, “could be considered toxic, although usually associated with ‘nonfatal’ overdoses. Fatalities due to baclofen alone have even higher levels of drug present.
“The levels, however, are certainly enough to be a significant contributing factor to death in a cold environment,” Greenwald noted. The report notes that neither the time nor the date of Clark’s death could be determined.
Greenwald’s report also noted there were signs of recent heart damage “consistent with an event occurring at least 10 days to two weeks before death.” The scar could be the result of a viral infection, but it also could have been “a complication of cocaine or methamphetamine abuse,” Greenwald noted, further adding, “The history on Nathan is opiate type substance abuse rather than stimulants, and there is no cocaine, amphetamine or methamphetamine or their metabolites in the blood.”
According to a narrative prepared by one of the law enforcement officials involved in the investigation into Clark’s death, the Hampden Academy senior “had prior episodes of both substance abuse and of leaving home” before the chain of events that led to his death.
Police believe that Clark and several other people had acquired baclofen shortly before Clark’s disappearance and that one of them, who was not identified, was treated at a hospital after having ingested 11 of the 20 milligram tablets.
Clark’s friends told police that the teen “may have taken over 20 of the pills” before leaving a Back Winterport Road home where he’d been visiting friends and disappearing into the woods surrounding a nearby gravel pit.
When Clark was found at 1:45 p.m. on March 26, he was lying on his right side with all but his right arm and leg out of the water, according to the narrative. His right foot was pinned under a branch and his left foot was lying on top of that branch.
Uphill from the stream was a campsite in a hollowed-out portion of the stream bank. The campsite consisted of the remains of a fire, a pallet covered with fresh green boughs and a small supply of firewood.
Directly above the branch was a small stump with a scrape mark on it. Clark had abrasions on his nose and forehead as well as his left hand.
In the narrative, the unnamed investigator issues the opinion that Clark “had set up his camp and for some reason started down to the stream. It appears that he slipped on the branch and that some part of his body, possibly his head, struck the protruding stump. This caused him to fall and be partially submerged in the cold water.”
The narrative further notes that air temperatures at the time ranged from below freezing to about 40 degrees.
“Stunned in the fall, [Clark] was probably massively hypothermic before the time he would have regained consciousness. There is certainly no evidence of his attempting to free himself or exit the brook,” the investigator notes.
Regarding the gathering of Clark and others at Michael Fortunato’s home on Saturday, March 21, Hampden police Cpl. Chris Bailey led an investigation that resulted in Fortunato, 44, being summoned on May 4 on two counts of aggravated furnishing Schedule W drugs, namely prescription muscle relaxers. The charges were elevated to aggravated because they alleged the furnishing of drugs to minors.
On May 26, a Penobscot County grand jury indicted Fortunato on two counts of aggravated unlawful furnishing of scheduled drugs, unlawful furnishing of scheduled drugs, and allowing a minor to possess or consume alcohol.
Fortunato allegedly furnished teenagers at the party with marijuana and prescription muscle relaxers.
At the time of the indictment, Penobscot County Deputy District Attorney Michael Roberts said that the indictment against Fortunato was not directly connected with the cause of Clark’s death.
Asked Friday if the toxicology test results would change the county’s case against Fortunato, Penobscot County District Attorney Chris Almy said: “The answer is no. We knew all about that [the apparent involvement of muscle relaxers]. We already considered that. The charges that we filed are the ones we are going to stay with.”
Fortunato has pleaded not guilty to the charges, a Penobscot County Superior Court clerk said this week. A hearing on Fortunato’s motion to suppress evidence in the case is scheduled for next month.
If convicted of the aggravated furnishing charges, which are Class C felonies, Fortunato faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.