A 37-year-old Pittsburgh man will stand trial on a single charge of manslaughter stemming from a March 29 altercation at a Kailua-Kona vacation rental that resulted in the strangulation death of his roommate, a fellow visitor from Pittsburgh.
District Court Judge Cynthia Tai determined the state had probable cause to charge Benjamin Fleming with the Class A felony stemming from the death of his college friend while vacationing in Kona following a two-day preliminary hearing that saw seven people take the stand.
Fleming was arrested early March 29 after Hawaii Police Department officers were called to the Kona Mansions Condominiums to a report of an unconscious man who was not breathing. Medics, who were already on the scene, determined that the victim, identified as 30-year-old Abhishek Gupta, also of Pittsburgh, was already deceased.
Alexander Germany-Wald of Montclair, New Jersey, the third roommate took the stand Wednesday during a preliminary hearing to relay his version of events that lead to the death of Gupta.
Germany-Wald said the trio, who all were friends since attending college at Carnegie Mellon University, arrived on the Big Island on March 28. Their first stop was at Costco, where they stocked up on liquor and food including two cases of beer two bottles of wine and one each 1.75 liter bottles of light rum, dark rum and bourbon. They all started drinking at the Airbnb, consuming “several bottles of beer and mai tais until they decided to go to dinner.”
While waiting for their table at Huggo’s, they had some more drinks at Humpy’s. There, Germany-Wald said Gupta became increasingly drunk. Germany-Wald testified that he told their server at dinner not to serve Gupta, but he was still provided several drinks while at the establishment. After dinner, the trio proceeded to Sam’s Hideaway and finally to a bar in the Coconut Grove Marketplace.
Germany-Wald testified that it was then that he decided to take Gupta back to their vacation rental off Walua Road because Gupta had drank to the point that he was “psychotically drunk,” and had become belligerent and had been asked to leave the last establishment. Fleming stayed behind.
Upon returning to the rental, Germany-Wald said Gupta was berating him, so he locked himself in a bedroom until Fleming came back. When he heard Fleming return and Gupta harassing him, Germany-Wald said he emerged from the bedroom.
“Mr. Gupta approached me and a short fistfight ensued and we exchanged punches. He hit me several times in the face and knocked me off balance. Then he was on top of me and kept punching me in the face,” Germany-Wald told the court.
He said Fleming came to his aid, and prevented Gupta from punching him further by putting him in a restraining hold.
“The next thing I saw was Mr. Fleming lowering Mr. Gupta to the floor, saying ‘down you go,’” he said. “Mr. Gupta was placed delicately to the floor. I rose to my feet to attend to my injuries.”
He said with Gupta laying in the hallway floor, Fleming joined him in the kitchen where they drank a beer.
Germany-Wald testified that he could hear Gupta “snoring” in the hallway. Several minutes later they checked on Gupta because they no longer heard him snoring.
“When I checked on Mr. Gupta I noticed he had wet himself and his lips were blue and he didn’t appear to be breathing,” he said. “We moved him to the bedroom to perform CPR.”
Dr. Matrina Schmidt, a forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on Gupta, testified Wednesday that the cause of death was strangulation and the manor of death was homicide.
The first police officers on the scene took the stand last Wednesday, stating that when Fleming provided a statement, he said the affray between Germany-Wald was mutual with both throwing punches. He continued by telling officers that it was Germany-Wald that knocked Gupta to the ground. Fleming allegedly told another officer he was in the bathroom when the fight started, he didn’t see the fight and when he emerged from the bathroom Gupta was on the floor and Germany-Wald was on top of him. Based on Fleming’s statement, Germany-Wald was placed under arrest.
Germany-Wald said he did not make a statement to police at that time because he didn’t want to talk about it.
Later at the police station, Fleming told detectives he saw Gupta punching Germany-Wald about two times. When he intervened, he said Gupta fell to the floor and “might have hit his head.”
However, detectives saw a text conversation on Fleming’s phone with an unknown person that said “I just choked my friend and he’s making weird noises on the floor.”
On Thursday, lead Detective Tyler Prokopec took the stand. He testified Fleming recounted the story of being in the bathroom when he heard the altercation between Gupta and Germany-Wald. He said Fleming told him that he grabbed Gupta off of Germany-Wald, which is when Gupta must have hit his head and “went out.”
“He said he didn’t think much of it and was going to let his sleep it off,” the detective testified. “When they went to move him to the bedroom to sleep it off, they noticed he wasn’t breathing.”
Prokopec said when he later interviewed Germany-Wald, he told him “Fleming put him in some kind of sleeper hold and within five seconds Gupta was asleep.”
In that interview, the detective said Germany-Wald told him they all just got their master’s degrees and that Fleming was a Green Beret.
“The evidence shows an accident, certainly a terrible tragedy,” said Fleming’s defense attorney Christopher Eggert. “But it does not show manslaughter.”
Tai, after determining probable cause existed to support the charge, sent the case to Circuit Court. She also denied a defense argument for supervised release, maintaining bail for Fleming at $250,000.
Fleming will next appear to enter his plea to the offense on April 15 in front of Judge Robert D.S. Kim.
If convicted of manslaughter, a Class A felony, Fleming faces up to 20 years incarceration.