Strangling victim was drinking among strangers

Jose Cartagena, a Puerto Rican native who had come to Connecticut eight years earlier, was an outsider among the people he drank with and then fought with on the last night of his life four years ago.

Details of that April 2008 night have been emerging at the manslaughter trial of 35-year-old Dirren T. Conyers in Superior Court in Norwich. He is accused of fatally strangling Cartagena after a melee in the Poquonnock Bridge section of Groton on April 13, 2008.

For the past week, prosecutor Christa L. Baker has been calling eyewitnesses to the incident, including, on Wednesday, James "Buddha" Smith, who also is charged with fighting Cartagena that night.

The state is expected to rest its case today after Chief Medical Examiner H. Wayne Carver testifies about the autopsy he performed on Cartagena. Defense attorney Tina Sypek-D'Amato then is expected to call several witnesses.

Conyers, who has been free on a $250,000 bond while his case was pending, sat quietly at the defense table in a dark suit Wednesday as the state called his longtime friends and associates to testify. If convicted of manslaughter, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Cartagena, 36, whose family said he worked at PCC Structural, a Groton company that makes jet-engine parts, was out that night with Jeannette Johnson, a woman he had met just a few weeks earlier.

According to testimony, they went drinking at Sully's Cafe, a now-defunct neighborhood bar, with a group of friends and relatives, including Conyers, that Johnson had known for decades.

The alcohol was flowing, according to Darryl Sebastian, who hosted a cookout that afternoon with his wife, Stacey at their Miami Court home. Sebastian testified Wednesday that after the cookout, everyone went to Sully's and had a good time. He said they took turns buying rounds and estimated they each put down seven or eight shots before following him back to his house. Like several of the others who testified, Sebastian said he had just met Cartagena that night at Sully's.

Sebastian said he was intoxicated, but not "stumble drunk" when the "commotion" started outside his house. Still, he testified that he didn't see exactly what occurred. He didn't want any trouble and said he yelled out to the participants that they should "take it down the street."

Smith, on the other hand, testified that he was so drunk he doesn't remember what happened between him and Cartagena.

"We started fighting" Smith testified. "I don't even remember how."

Other witnesses have said that the fight started when a man claimed Cartagena made a disrespectful remark to someone's mother.

Smith said somebody pulled him off Cartagena and put him in his sister's car. He attempted to get out and resume fighting, Smith said, but his sister grabbed him and put him in the car again.

Conyers is then accused of placing Cartagena in a choke hold until he stopped breathing.

Johnson said that after Smith and Cartagena were separated, she and Cartagena were about to leave when a group of people, including Conyers, attacked Cartagena as he was trying to get in his car. At one point, according to one eyewitness, Cartagena was on the ground being punched and kicked by up to eight people.

Witnesses said two men carried the victim's limp body to the back seat of Johnson's car. Cartagena's cause of death was determined to be traumatic asphyxiation, or strangulation.

k.florin@theday.com

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