5 years on, mystery remains in NE Pa. deaths of 3
Sunday, November 6, 2011
FORKSTON, Pa. (AP) — Forkston Mountain was socked in with a cold drizzle the late autumn day, nearly five years ago, that David Grasch arrived with his two cousins to do a little work on his hunting cabin, three miles up a narrow mountain lane in an out-of-the-way corner of northeastern Pennsylvania.
Grasch, Tony DiMartino and Pat Mahoney, all in their 20s, had driven up together from their homes in the Philadelphia region to meet someone who was going to install a permanent propane line. They unloaded some bags, fired up a gasoline generator and space heaters, and used Grasch’s cell phone to check in back home.
They were never heard from again. Neighbors found their lifeless bodies four days later.
The Pennsylvania State Police have never determined how the men died, and remain unsure if they are investigating a triple homicide or a tragic accident. But in recent weeks, state police have renewed their push to find answers, prompted in part by questions raised by The Associated Press about how the initial probe was handled.
Immediately after the men died, authorities strongly suspected a case of carbon monoxide poisoning, but after tests ruled that out they had to look elsewhere. That led them to Grasch’s hometown in southern New Jersey, where it would later come out that he and his brother had been trafficking large amounts of cocaine.
Family members grew frustrated at the pace of the investigation, and the drug angle fueled suspicions among relatives about foul play.
“My life for the past four and a half years has been torture — torture,” said Tony’s mother, Maureen DiMartino of Philadelphia. “If it was carbon monoxide, I would have to deal with it. But not knowing what happened to my son is the most horrible thing ever.”
Hunting and fishing were long a part of David Grasch’s life. He bought the 7.7-acre property in 2003 for $21,000, after his family had been spending time on 2,650-foot elevation Forkston Mountain for about a decade.
The week they died was not the first time Pat and Tony had been to the cabin to help out. Pat was unemployed at age 22 but had worked construction and for moving companies, while Tony, 21, was attending cooking school.
The three got to the mountain about 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 14, phone records indicate, then made calls to check in back home, telling people they were playing chess.
They brought their bags inside but died without unpacking them.
Authorities have said the gasoline generator had been running in the garage, which David’s father, Al Grasch, said was unusual. They usually dragged it outside and snaked the power line through a window.
No more phone calls came after Tuesday. In the ensuing days, the concerns of friends and family grew to panic, and by Saturday, Stephen Grasch decided to check on them. At some point during the five-hour drive from Cape May, N.J., he reached friends who lived nearby and asked them to check on the cabin.
“When we got out of my vehicle, everything was bone-chill quiet,” recalled neighbor Mark Kruzlik.
He and the other man walked through an unlocked door to find David in a recliner, with Pat and Tony slumped down on a couch.
A number of signs pointed to carbon monoxide as the cause, from vomiting and aspiration of stomach contents to the relatively fast manner in which they died. Autopsies by forensic pathologist Dr. Gary W. Ross indicated no signs of trauma and did not determine an anatomic cause of death.
All three had excessive fluid in their lungs and brains, and blood had massed in their buttocks, suggesting they died where they were found. Ross declined to comment.
They all had drugs in their systems, but a forensic toxicology report issued later concluded the levels were too low to have caused their deaths, even for David, as his results were consistent with taking the drugs as prescribed.
The case languished until 2007, when Stephen Grasch was arrested in southern New Jersey and charged with running a drug ring that dealt large amounts of cocaine. Dozens of others, including his father, also were charged.
Al Grasch served a little over a year in prison and Stephen Grasch, now 34, remains behind bars, serving a 12-year term in a New Jersey state prison. Police said David was also involved in the drug-dealing ring, which his father confirmed.
Stephen Grasch said detectives interrogated him twice regarding the deaths of his brother and cousins, and to this day adamantly denies he had anything to do with them. Stephen Grasch was not charged in the case and blames police for stoking suspicions.
“The state police continuously told my Aunt Maureen, the Mahoney and the DiMartino families that the answer is in New Jersey and that I know what happened,” he told the AP in a letter.
“This accusation tore the entire family apart.”
State police Sgt. Anthony Manetta said the case has remained under active investigation, generating what he describes as a huge report.
Al and Stephen Grasch have always suspected carbon monoxide poisoning and consider other potential causes, including foul play, unlikely.
“How would they kill them? Wouldn’t something show up?” said Al Grasch. “They didn’t shoot ’em, they didn’t stab ’em, they didn’t tie ’em up.”
Manetta said police investigators are considering a reenactment that would use the same models of space heater and generator to see what happened to carbon monoxide and oxygen levels.
But the answer may be deep in the stack of records the families provided to AP, in the form of laboratory test results performed at Scranton’s Moses Taylor Hospital two days after the bodies were found.
They helped rule out carbon monoxide, but experts say they also documented results that may be medically impossible. Two weeks ago, after the AP raised questions about the accuracy of those tests, the state police began examining if they were botched.
The main issue concerns carbon dioxide — not monoxide — a gas that Manetta said is normally ignored in death investigations because its levels increase after people die. The healthy range for carbon dioxide in blood, in the scale used to measure it, is 35 to 45, with dangerous levels existing well below 100. Pat Mahoney’s level was 342, David Grasch’s was 478 and Tony DiMartino’s reached 764, the report showed.
But it’s unlikely a drafty cabin would trap enough gas to create fatal conditions, said Dr. Colin Grissom, a physician in Murray, Utah, who has studied carbon dioxide deaths in mountain avalanches.
There are also questions about how the lab could have listed “zero” as David’s blood oxygen level but 16 percent for oxyhemoglobin, said Dr. Neil Hampson, a Seattle physician who has treated more than 1,200 patients with carbon monoxide poisoning. Oxygen is a component of oxyhemoglobin.
Hampson also said the hemoglobin results in general were so high as to make him doubt their accuracy, and he noted Pat’s tests did not list any values in two categories, even though the test should generate results in all categories.
Hampson said there may have been problems with the hospital lab’s equipment. If the lab technician put the handwritten results in the wrong place, he said, that might account for the apparent errors and could show fatal levels of carbon monoxide.
“It seems most likely to me it’s carbon monoxide poisoning,” Hampson said. “I think there’s something wrong.”
A hospital spokeswoman would only say it maintains a policy of not commenting on any coroner’s case.
Family members are anxious to see whether the flurry of new activity yields any new results. Manetta said a few days ago that a state police investigator plans to look into the hospital lab and meet with the coroner and forensic pathologist next week.
The five-year anniversary is about two weeks away.
“I would like to know the truth,” Al Grasch said. “For the whole family, you know, because it was so torn apart by this. To definitely come up with a conclusion would be great for the family.”