Midshipman who died in fall was inebriated

20-year-old junior had blood-alcohol level of 0.11%, autopsy shows

September 26, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The 20-year-old midshipman who fell to his death from his Naval Academy dorm room last month was inebriated at the time of his fall, according to an autopsy report released by military investigators yesterday.

John Paul Ruggiero, a junior from rural Gouldsboro, Pa., had a blood-alcohol level of 0.11 percent, above the 0.08 percent legal limit for driving in Maryland and, experts say, enough to slow reaction time, cloud judgment and diminish balance.

People familiar with the case disclosed yesterday that Ruggiero had been drinking wine and beer at a dinner party at the house of an Annapolis woman in the school's sponsor-family program. The program pairs midshipmen with local families, who offer students a home away from campus on weekends.

After dinner, Ruggiero and other underage midshipmen continued drinking alcohol at the nearby home of a Navy ensign. The ensign is expected to face disciplinary charges, said the academy spokesman, Cmdr. Bill Spann.

The academy also took a measure of responsibility for the accident that ended Ruggiero's life and stunned students and administrators at the academy. Spann said the school is preparing to install metal bars or other restraining device outside the dorm's large windows to prevent similar falls.

"There's an acknowledgment that the system could be safer," he said.

Ruggiero's two roommates were asleep in the early morning of Aug. 18 when he fell 53 feet from his window onto a tennis court beside the Bancroft Hall dormitory. Spann said yesterday that medical and criminal investigators have ruled the fall an accident.

"Exhaustive death investigation reveals no evidence whatsoever that he wished to harm himself, nor that a third party wished him harm," according to an autopsy report The Sun obtained from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology under the Freedom of Information Act.

The evidence suggests that Ruggiero may have lost his balance while reaching to retrieve gym clothes from the fourth-floor window sill, where he had placed them to dry. Two articles of gym clothes were found near his body.

Ruggiero's relatives and friends have said that Ruggiero, who dreamed of flying fighter jets and was a month shy of his 21st birthday, was in a sunny mood the night before he died. It was a Saturday, two days before the start of his junior year. And the outgoing midshipman with a mischievous streak had just signed the "2 for 7," the contract committing students to five years in the Navy after graduation.

That evening, Ruggiero and a group of academy friends went to the house of the Annapolis sponsor and her two children. Ruggiero had helped her with gardening and had put up siding at her house. On this night, Ruggiero, who had cooked at an Italian restaurant in high school, whipped up a shrimp scampi dinner for a table of 20.

He was back in his dorm room by the midnight curfew. Investigators have been unable to pinpoint the time of his fall. He had been exchanging Internet messages with a friend as late as 1:30 a.m. His body was found on the tennis court at 7:15 a.m. by two midshipmen walking back from a workout.

A person of Ruggiero's weight, 180 pounds, would have to drink the equivalent of nine bottles of beer over four hours to reach the 0.11 percent blood alcohol level.

"At a blood alcohol level of 0.11, most of your functions are in some way impaired," said Susan P. Baker, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health who studies alcohol-related accidents. "It's an impairment of judgment, of perception, of ability to respond to a hazard, and certainly balance."

Even so, the military medical examiner who conducted the autopsy could not say for sure what role Ruggiero's inebriation might have played in his fall.

Spann, the academy spokesman, declined to release the name of the host of the dinner party or say whether she had provided alcohol to the midshipman. "If we find out that a sponsor is supplying alcohol to midshipmen," he said, "it's likely they'll be removed from the program."

Legal experts said the academy was at little risk of liability in the case.

The midshipman's father, John Ruggiero, said last night that he bore no anger toward the sponsor, the ensign or the academy. "I'm assuming he was cooking Italian, so I'm assuming they were having some wine," he said.

He says, however, that he and his wife, Carol, expressed concern to investigators that the sills on dorm windows are 25 inches from the floor.

"To me, that was obviously unsafe," Ruggiero said. "If that bar they're going to put there now was in place, he'd probably be alive today."

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