NEW ORLEANS — This is Part Two of SHATTERED: The Seth Donaldson Story. Watch part one of the Eyewitness documentary series here.
From the moment she wakes up in the morning, to the time she lays her head on the pillow at night, Amy Donaldson’s questions keep flashing through her mind, starting with this one: How did her son, Seth, 22, fall to his death out a 12th floor window at the Saratoga Lofts building in New Orleans’ Central Business District last October?
New Orleans Police and the Orleans Parish Coroner ruled Seth’s death a suicide, but police took the unusual step of having a homicide detective review the case in recent weeks at the urging of the Donaldsons, who have been providing them a steady stream of information about the case.
The North Carolina couple has made three trips to New Orleans to meet with police, the coroner, the FBI, elected officials and the Independent Police Monitor about their concerns that Seth’s death wasn’t fully investigated.
Did Seth Donaldson want to die? Did he commit suicide? The Donaldsons said they believe the answers to those questions are no.
“Why do I have to come down here to tell you to do your job,” Scott Donaldson asked rhetorically on his third visit in six months to New Orleans in April.
The circumstances surrounding Seth’s death raised their suspicions, especially since Amy said she spoke with her son, a young chef, at 10:30 p.m. the night before he died, and they talked about his bright future. Seth had started counting down the days until he moved back to North Carolina to start a new chef’s job at a new restaurant.
Seth had been working double shifts at two of New Orleans’ finest restaurants: Gris Gris and Commander’s Palace. Both restaurants declined to comment for this story.
Two of Seth’s high school friends from North Carolina had come to New Orleans for Voodoo Festival. We’re calling them ‘John’ and ‘Kelly’ for the purposes of this story because they are not suspected of a crime, they are witnesses to a death.
‘Kelly’ told police Seth saw a social media post she made about being at Voodoo Fest and he asked to meet up after work. ‘John’ texted Seth, “I’m waiting outside,” at the Tchoup Yard bar at 1:23 am.
The group went bar hopping for a couple of hours, and the police report indicates ‘John’ sent a message to a friend that said, “Tripping acid in Nola [right now],” at 12:57 am.
By the time EMS arrived, just before 6 a.m., Seth was dead and ‘John’ had a bloody nose. He would later tell police Seth had punched him while having a bad acid trip.
“Someone’s died. Someone’s got a bloody nose. Something happened,” Scott said.
Sources said the toxicology tests done on Seth during the autopsy revealed LSD, cocaine and marijuana in Seth’s system. But it would be up to police to determine how Seth went out the window and whether Seth was suicidal.
‘John’ and ‘Kelly’ were staying at an Air B&B in room 1201 at the Saratoga Lofts. Seth had gone back to the room to hang out. Police found drops of blood in the bathroom, trailing through the apartment and near the bed.
It was a studio apartment with the bathroom door to the left and the kitchen to the right. NOPD body camera footage, obtained through a public record request, shows the window directly in front of you when you walk in the front door.
Underneath the window was a couch just a few inches below the window ledge. A coffee table sat in front of the sofa, and police found a white powder on it that the crime lab took a sample of for testing.
Police would not say whether they have tested it.
Even with the white powder on the coffee table in the middle of the room, ‘Kelly’ told police she didn’t know Seth had taken drugs that night when they interviewed her the morning of his death.
“He didn't even disclaim that he was on anything at all. He just started freaking out. That's why I didn't know how to handle it. Was it a panic attack? Was it anxiety,” ‘Kelly’ said on the video recording.
She and ‘John’ described Seth running up in and out of the apartment to the elevator, shouting for help. ‘John’ said every time Seth would see him he would yell, “No no no no no!”
About a half an hour before Seth went out the window, ‘John’ said Seth attacked him on the bed, punching him in the face. The hit broke ‘John’s’ nose, leaving him bleeding all over the room, all over his clothes.
At one point, in a heated conversation with Amy after Seth died, John sent her a picture of yellow pants with blood spots all over the left front pant leg as evidence her son attacked him that night. He was not wearing those yellow pants in the police body camera footage.
Police records indicate the couple told different stories to investigators about how Seth went out the window. ‘Kelly’ said Seth ran across the room from the direction of the bed and jumped through the window. ‘John’ was sitting next to ‘Kelly’ when the uniformed officers interviewed her, and even though he declined to speak to police and asked for a lawyer, he corrected ‘Kelly’ about how he said Seth went out the window.
“He didn't straight run at the window across the room and jump. He catapulted himself off the couch through the window,” ‘John’ said.
In a brief Facebook messenger conversation with me, ‘John’ said Seth punched through, then jumped through the window off the couch. One of the couch’s arms was broken when police arrived.
‘John’ declined to be interviewed for this story, adding, “Please quit asking for information and let him Rest In Peace.”
‘Kelly’ never responded to my request for comment.
A witness, who lived underneath 1201, told investigators he heard arguing and screaming followed by a loud crash and more footsteps from above running around the apartment. He went down to the third floor where there is a rooftop balcony and a Jacuzzi.
“He was down here on the 3rd floor and had some blood, saying this dude was on some acid, hit him. He had blood coming out of his nose,” the witness said.
At the scene, police talk on the body camera recording about trying to determine whether they were investigating a homicide, a suicide or an unexplained death.
Amy Donaldson, who has assumed the role of detective, has been working for six months to gather evidence of what exactly happened that night, concerned ‘John’ and ‘Kelly’ aren’t telling the whole story about what happened.
Their confidence in the quality of the investigation by New Orleans Police and the coroner shattered when they tried to find Seth’s cell phone in the days after his death.
The incident report filed by the NOPD says the phone went to the coroner’s office. But when the Donaldsons tried to get it from the coroner, the phone wasn’t there either.
“Where is his phone? I have no idea where this phone is. It could be with the Air B&B host. We have no idea. Why don't you have any idea where cell phone is,” Amy asked of NOPD Detective Marshal Scallan.
Scallan is a detective assigned to the 8th police district, not homicide. Until recently, Scallan handled the investigation into Seth’s death.
Amy said her questions about who had the phone were not answered by police, but by a text message from a North Carolina woman who Amy barely knows. The woman said her son had gotten the phone from ‘John.’
When she got it back, Amy reached out to Scallan to see if he wanted to have the NOPD forensically examine it.
“I mean nowadays how do you not even think about a phone being something to justify suicide versus homicide,” Amy said.
The police report says Scallan told Amy the NOPD didn’t have the software to do it.
So, the Donaldsons paid Digital Forensic Expert David Shelton to evaluate the phone. Shelton regularly testifies as an expert in court about digital forensics.
“There were no text messages on the messaging app of the phone, no internet history. There was no Snapchat app on the phone at that time,” Shelton said.
Seth had used Snapchat the morning that he died. A friend from North Carolina, who asked not to be identified, said she received a picture from him around 2 a.m.
“The last thing that he said to me on Snapchat was a picture of him taking a tab of acid and I knew that he has never really done that,” she said.
She replied to Seth asking how it went, but he never responded.
A doctor at University Medical Center pronounced Seth dead at 6:02 a.m. the morning of Oct. 28, 2018.
That process is a known one to Seth’s father, Scott. While he and his wife, Amy, live in Hendersonville, North Carolina now, he completed his surgical residency at Charity Hospital in the 1990’s and he says he was often the one called to “the ramp,” the driveway where the coroner would pull up with bodies to pronounce death.
In the city where Seth was born, he took his last breaths and it seems his parents are just hoping they can breathe out soon.
“There's sometimes that you even kind of panic because you think, OK, well, I think things are better now. You know, I'm not sick with grief. But then you get this panic because you think, if that goes away, is my love for him gonna go away? Is my memory gonna go away? And you don't want it to go away, so you think, should I stay in this awful place forever, because that's all I have, all I have left,” Amy said.
She filed a 51-complaint letter with the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor over the investigation. They passed it on to the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau for review.
The NOPD said a homicide detective reviewed Seth’s case and will send an additional, supplemental report to the Orleans Parish District Attorney for review.
The Donaldsons also had a big problem with how the Orleans Parish Coroner, Dwight McKenna handled the investigation and treated them in the process. They said a meeting in February with the coroner and his pathologists did not go well.
“We're just grieving parents we don't know what happened. We don't know why you call this a suicide. And Dwight McKenna just did not diffuse the situation. He's a bully,” Scott said.
“He said 'let the dog and pony show begin,'” Amy added.
McKenna declined an interview for this story, saying in a statement, “Following a full review of pathological evidence and a thorough investigation in coordination with the NOPD and the district attorney’s office, my office stands by the classification of Mr. Donaldson’s death as a suicide.”
Editor's Note: The video version of this story stated NOPD Officer Gabrielle Lewis was no longer with the department based on information from another public agency. She is still with the NOPD, assigned to the 2nd District.