Note: This story contains details about Camden Rundell’s death that people might find upsetting.
ITHACA, N.Y. — The Newfield murder trial continued Monday with the defense calling the Onondaga County’s chief medical examiner to the stand to offer an alternate perspective about how 30-year-old Camden Rundell might have died last December.
According to the prosecution, Rundell was murdered after Roy Clements Jr. sat on his chest to restrain him while three other people robbed his home of marijuana plants on Dec. 2 last year.
Clements Jr. has been charged with second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and fourth-degree conspiracy in relation to Rundell’s death. Two other people have also been charged with murder — Jamie Gerhart and Colleen McColgin — but have not gone to trial or reached a plead deal. Dennis Lampila, who was also involved in the crime, pleaded guilty to felony first-degree robbery in October and Melissa Minnick, who had a lesser role in the crime, pleaded guilty to felony fourth-degree conspiracy in August.
Clements has maintained his innocence and his attorney Lance Salisbury has questioned during the trial both whether a robbery actually happened, as opposed to a drug deal, and whether Rundell was murdered, as opposed to dying from drug use.
Related — Newfield homicide trial: Prosecution says man was murdered, defense says defendant falsely accused
Forensic pathologist Dr. James Terzian testified earlier during the trial that Rundell had marijuana, alcohol and cocaine in his system when he died. But Terzian said drugs aren’t what killed Rundell.
“It’s complicated, but basically (Rundell) died of asphyxiation due to smothering,” he said during his testimony for the prosecution.
But when Dr. Robert Stoppacher took the stand Monday afternoon, he offered a different scenario about what happened the night Rundell died.
In addition to being Onondaga County’s chief medical examiner, Stoppacher is also an associate professor at State University of New York Upstate Medical University and an adjunct at Syracuse University. He’s performed about 4,000 autopsies over the last 16 years. He was paid $500 per hour by the defense to provide his professional perspective to the case.
“I think there’s misconception, maybe from some of the TV shows that are on now…that the autopsy can be done and the medical examiner can know exactly what happened,” Stoppacher said. “That’s obviously not the case.”
He said that there are many factors considered when determining how a person died, such as a toxicology report, the autopsy, and background information available from police about how a person died. Each death, he said, is weighed on a case-by-case basis to “come to the best possible conclusion.”
He said, for example, that if a woman died with bruises on her ribs and it was reported that CPR had been performed on her, that would make sense. A more suspicious situation would be if a woman had bruises on her ribs and was found deceased at the bottom of a staircase.
Salisbury asked him, “If the background information provided to you as a medical examiner is inaccurate or even false, does that have the potential to impact the autopsy findings?”
Stoppacher answered, “Well, it wouldn’t impact the findings, but it might impact the interpretation of those findings.”
Salisbury has maintained that Rundell’s girlfriend Leah Armstrong, who was at the home during the robbery and a witness called by the prosecution, gave unreliable testimony and false statements to police.
Armstrong testified to being within about five feet of Rundell as he was restrained by somebody sitting on his chest during the robbery. She said she didn’t intervene because she was scared and her phone was taken from her. She was able to call 911 after the robbery.
One of the points Salisbury has brought up during the trial and called inaccurate or false, are allegations that Rundell’s body was never moved before police officers arrived.
Salisbury said that due to the location of where blood appeared to be internally pooling after Rundell’s death — near his face, eye and larynx — that Rundell died face down, not on his back as some witnesses attested to during testimony. Stoppacher said it was possible that happened and Rundell’s ankles, which were crossed when first responders arrived at the scene, further supported that theory because rigor mortis (the stiffening of one’s muscles after death) could have caused the ankles to cross when he was flipped over.
This is important because it insinuates that somebody at some point may have turned Rundell over, and it appeared that the man may have choked on his vomit. Multiple people testified that Rundell was found with vomit on his face and chunks of food were in his throat, the former also proved by photos taken at the scene.
Stoppacher said it’s normal for people to vomit while dying or right after they die.
Another point called into question was whether Rundell died of a drug overdose because marijuana, alcohol and cocaine were found in his body during a toxicology. Stoppacher testified that there is no minimum level of cocaine that can cause overdoses because the drug can, for a variety of reasons, impact the body differently every time it’s used.
Salisbury asked, “If we remove that background information, are there any specific findings in the autopsy report itself that would lead you to the conclusion of mechanical asphyxia?”
Mechanical asphyxia is caused when the body parts needed to breathe are not working, like if one’s chest cannot rise and fall.
Stoppacher said the findings are very “non-specific” and do not necessarily point definitively to mechanical asphyxia.
Salisbury asked, “Absent the report (from Rundell’s girlfriend at the time) of a large man atop of the deceased — if we remove that information that a person laid on Mr. Rundell, without that… is it possible that Mr. Rundell died of a cocaine induced cardiac event?”
“With those parameters, yes,” Stoppacher said.
Deputy District Attorney Andrew Bonavia cross-examined Stoppacher and questioned whether the alternate possibilities of how Rundell died were the realistic possibility of how Rundell died — whether these alternative possibilities could be considered the manner of death.
Bonavia asked, “In other words, it’s not as if this was inevitable? You can’t testify that it was just bad luck and coincidence that in the early morning hours of Dec. 2, 2016, he just dropped dead of a heart attack, correct?”
Confused by the question, Bonavia began asking Stoppacher specifically about drugs found in Rundell’s body and whether Stoppacher would usually conclude that a man with 65 nanograms per milliliter of cocaine in his system likely died of drug-related causes.
Stoppacher said it would depend on other factors reported during the death, leading Bonavia to ask then, how Stoppacher could weigh in on Rundell’s cause of death without considering the testimony of Armstrong at the scene.
Bonavia asked, “You’re not saying that it (other possibilities about how Rundell died) being possible would result in the manner of death…What’s the manner of death? How did Camden Rundell die?”
“I think in looking at all the information, there’s findings that would be consistent with him dying as a result of a mechanical asphyxiation. The findings are not specific and could be seen in other causes of death,” Stoppache said.
“You don’t disagree with Dr. Terzian’s findings, do you?” Bonavia asked.
“No,” Stoppache said.
The trial continues Tuesday morning at the Tompkins County Courthouse.