Photo credit: Sam Ross/theradioscout.com
Last January, the state police came to EG Police Chief Steven Brown asking about any reports involving an assault at a bar that required ambulance transport 10 or so years ago. Brown said he searched records between 2011 and 2014, using keywords like “assault,” “bar,” “injury,” and “transport.” He eventually came up with one report, dated Thursday, March 22, 2012. The report didn’t include anything about an assault but was about a man who fell outside of The Oaks, was taken by ambulance to Kent Hospital, and died the next day from what the medical examiner later said was “blunt trauma of the head.”
The state police were looking for a report that could match up with a story told to them by retired RISP Lt. Michael Casey about a possible assault he’d heard about from another retired member of the RISP, EG resident Timothy Sanzi, in a phone conversation in January. Casey had recorded the call. During the conversation, Sanzi told him about a phone call he’d gotten 10 or so years earlier from retired state police Maj. Joseph Philbin. According to Sanzi, Philbin had sounded “nervous” and told Sanzi he had gotten into a fight near Main Street in East Greenwich and the guy he was fighting had fallen and hit his head on the pavement. Sanzi told Casey he didn’t remember the name of the place but that maybe it was “The Oak” or “The Elm.” Sanzi said he had told Philbin to call the police and a rescue if the guy was hurt and that Philbin said okay and the call ended. Philbin called Sanzi back sometime later to say everything was “all set” – that he’d talked to his friend, “Brownie.”
Did such an incident happen? That was what the state police were investigating.
According to the EG police report from the 2012 incident, police got a call at 11:59 p.m. about a man lying unconscious on the sidewalk on Queen Street, outside of The Oaks tavern. The man, David Heffron of South Kingstown, was taken to Kent Hospital and died the following day. An investigation into the death lasted two months and ended up declaring it an accidental death.
Since the state police investigation became public, the question has been, was an assault covered up? And, if so, by whom?
Chief Brown said he never got a call from Philbin about it and said he didn’t know about the incident until now. Philbin and Brown are friends – they lived together in South Kingstown in the early 1990s. Brown said they talk occasionally but are not especially close; he said he was not invited to Philbin’s wedding.
In January, the state police asked Brown if he’d ever heard of a guy named “Brownie.”
“That would be me,” he said he told them. “Who else would it be in East Greenwich?” Brown said Brownie was his nickname in the old days. “These guys were testing me a little bit to make sure I was consistent,” he said.
The EGPD 14-page report outlines what happened the night of the incident and the subsequent investigation, after Heffron died. Find it here: EGPD 3/22/12 Heffron Report. Find the state police report here: Rhode Island State Police Report.
Initially, the bartender and a patron at The Oaks both told police they didn’t know the injured man and he had not been in the bar that night. The bartender, Krishna Johnson, said if the man had been in the bar it was only to use the bathroom.
One of the officers on duty that night was Steven Branch, who retired four years ago. Branch, who now lives in Arizona, said he had no memory of the incident. Someone called him after the story broke in November but he said it did not ring a bell. “I don’t remember that night and no one contacted me after the fact and said the man had died,” Branch said. He added it wasn’t all that unusual for someone to be passed out at The Oaks. According to the hospital, Heffron had a blood alcohol level of .306, nearly four times the legal limit.
On Friday, March 23, 2012, the case went to EG Det. Patrick Trainor, who retired later that year. Trainor got permission to speak with the doctor treating Heffron. The doctor told him Heffron’s blood alcohol level and said Heffron had fallen, struck his head and went into shock, then his heart stopped. The doctor, Ehsun Mirz, M.D., said there was no indication of trauma that would have been associated with an assault.
After Heffron died a short time later, an autopsy was completed. The state medical examiner’s office would not release a copy to EG News, but said via email, “What we are able to release is the cause of death. The cause of death for David Heffron was blunt trauma of head with brain swelling and edema, subdural hemorrhage and skull fracture.”
Trainor then spoke to Johnson, who said Heffron had been at the bar the previous night, that he had arrived at around 8 p.m. and that she’d served him four beers and a shot of whiskey. Johnson used to date someone who worked for Heffron, so she knew him. She said he played Keno most of the night and did not have problems with anyone at the bar. She said Heffron went to the bathroom at one point later in the night, was in there for 10 minutes and when he came back he fell as he tried to sit down on his barstool. She said she didn’t see Heffron fall but turned around to see another patron helping him up. Shortly after that Johnson said she decided to close the bar, taking Heffron’s beer from him. She told Trainor she walked Heffron to the door and was calling someone to give Heffron a ride home. Heffron, meanwhile, was walking toward his car when Johnson said she saw him fall backwards. She ran to him and it appeared he was having a seizure. She called 911.
Trainor interviewed the patron who had helped Heffron up, Alan Burdett. He said Heffron seemed like a nice guy and that he may have fallen while in the bathroom because when he came out his ear was bleeding.
Another patron, a woman named Shirley who said she’d arrived around 11:30 p.m., echoed what Burdett had said about the bleeding ear and that Johnson had taken Heffron’s beer away. She said Heffron seemed unbalanced as he left the bar and then heard Johnson yell that he was on the ground.
In the report, Trainor said the owner of The Oaks, David Mastracchio, brought him the surveillance video April 11, 2012. On it, Trainor could see Heffron arrive at about 8:30, drink a few beers, talk and laugh with other bar patrons, “having a good time but nothing unusual.”
Trainor writes in the report that he got the autopsy report May 14, 2012. Trainor’s report ends there. Chief Brown said the death was ruled accidental and that no evidence or information had been added to the report since then.
Could Sanzi’s recollection of a 10-year-old conversation somehow be the Heffron death? While some details line up, others don’t at all. Sanzi said the conversation with Philbin took place on a “nice” day – it happened that March 22, 2012, was unusually warm, with a high of 81 degrees. But he also said the call came during the day and Heffron was taken from the Queen Street sidewalk just after midnight. Also, the state police said Philbin was working the night of March 22, 2012.
Sanzi said Philbin referred to “Brownie” and Chief Brown admitted that was indeed a nickname some people had used for him. But he insisted he had not spoken to Philbin about such an incident and if he had, he would not have risked his career to cover up for something like that.
“I’m not putting myself out there. If you [mess] up, you [mess] up. I would guide you through the process. I would never do something like that [aka a cover up].”
Brown also pointed to the state police decision to bring in the state attorney general’s office and noted that office did not find an issue with the report about what happened March 22, 2012.
“We did a full report and I stand by it,” said Brown.