Bartender, first responders set scene at Hughes murder trial

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Joey Gingerella didn't go to Ryan's Pub every day, or even every weekend, but the woman behind the stick at the neighborhood bar in Groton on the Saturday night two weeks before Christmas 2016, when Gingerella was fatally shot in the parking lot, said she had seen him there before.

The 24-year-old local man occasionally went to Ryan's to socialize with other young people, according to testimony Wednesday in New London Superior Court. The "boys" with whom Gingerella played pool and cornhole in the game room that December night typically drank Budweiser but weren't the kind of customers who "pounded" beers, according to bartender Rachel Smith.

On Dec. 11, 2016, "They were all buzzed," she said. "Nobody was over-the-top drunk."

Smith, testifying on the first day of the murder trial of Dante A. Hughes, the man accused of killing Gingerella, was the sole employee on duty as closing time approached on Dec. 11, 2016. She said that when it appeared a woman she knew as "Tootie" — later identified as Latoya Knight — had a fight with her boyfriend inside the bar and was in danger of being assaulted in the parking lot, she turned to the "boys" in the game room and said, "Can you help me?" She said she had already told Hughes to stop.

Gingerella went out to the parking lot with at least two others, and within minutes was mortally wounded. Smith testified that when she had gone to check on them, one of the men, Andrew Flynn, gestured that everything was OK. She said she took a few steps back into the bar when Elvira "Missy" Gonzalez came in and told her to call the police.

The jury heard a recording of the 911 call Smith placed that night. As she told the dispatcher shots had been fired and that the shooter, wearing a red shirt and white hat, was walking away, somebody in the background could be heard saying, "Joey's on the ground."

"I have a man on the ground," she said. "Somebody's been shot."

Hughes, whom Smith and others said they saw walking away from the crime scene, was arrested two days later as he attempted to cross the border into Canada, according to police. He has pleaded not guilty to murder and firearms charges and is on trial before a jury of 12 regular members and three alternates.

He wore a sports jacket and slacks Wednesday and sat next to his attorney, Walter D. Hussey.

Family members of Gingerella, along with several supporters, and Hughes' parents sat on opposite sides of the gallery as prosecutors Paul J. Narducci and Christa L. Baker elicited testimony from Smith, bar patron Brandon Slocum and first responders and put photos of the early morning crime scene —  a parking lot with just a few lights —on a projector.

The victim was lying on the ground in bloodied jeans and sweatshirt, breathing shallowly and with a weak pulse when the first two officers arrived, according to their testimony.   

Master Patrolman Albert Martinez of the Groton Town Police Department said he arrived at the Fort Hill Road pub within four minutes of being dispatched for a report of shots fired. Pulling into the lot, he testified that he noticed that the first officer to arrive, Patrolman Eric Chomka, was preventing someone from leaving the scene in an SUV. The passenger of the gray Nissan Armada turned out to be Knight, Hughes' girlfriend.

People were attending to Gingerella during the final moments of his life, including a man later identified as John Hoyt, who had taken off his shirt and fashioned it into a tourniquet to stop Gingerella from bleeding, according to testimony.

"He was sobbing," Martinez testified. "He was frantic. His voice was cracking. He was yelling out, saying 'Come on, Joey! Come on, Joey!'

Also with Gingerella was "Missy" Gonzalez, who got down on the ground near his head and begged, "Stay with me, Joey," according to testimony.

Martinez received and relayed information about the shooter, who had left the scene, to headquarters, made sure the scene was secure for the ambulance crew, and he and Chomka tried to keep Gingerella alive by administering oxygen, cutting open his clothing and doing chest compressions, according to his testimony. Marcus Milukas, an EMT with Groton Ambulance, testified that he and his partner arrived, assessed the situation, and decided to take the victim to the hospital.

Martinez said his sergeant assigned him to go to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital with the victim, so he followed the ambulance in his cruiser. He said he arrived at 2:05 a.m. and Gingerella was pronounced dead at 2:14 a.m. He collected metal fragments that medical staff had found while working on Gingerella and stayed with his body for several hours.

"Essentially, at that point he becomes evidence," Martinez testified. "As cold as it sounds, he becomes evidence and we have to stay with him."

Hughes' attorney, Hussey, cross-examined the two police officers about vehicles that were in the parking lot when they arrived and other details of the crime scene, including lighting. He asked Chomka if Knight, the girlfriend, was driving out of the parking lot at a high speed when Chomka stopped her. Chomka said no, though she was at the edge of the driveway when he pulled up about two minutes after being dispatched. Hussey questioned the bartender about her initial statement that she had seen people pushing and shoving during the parking lot altercation. She said she couldn't recall that now. She also testified Wednesday that Slocum was among those who went outside at her request, though her original statement has not included him, and Slocum testified that he stayed inside the bar.

Also in the gallery Wednesday were members of the Susiman Shapiro law firm, who are representing Gingerella's estate, an attorney representing Ryan's Pub and victim advocates from the courthouse and Survivors of Homicide.

When the trial resumes Thursday, the state is expected to elicit testimony from members of the state police Eastern District Major Crime Squad, who assisted with the investigation, and from Hoyt. The trial is anticipated to last two to three weeks, and the state at some point is expected to call Knight, the girlfriend, to the witness stand. The defense has not identified any potential witnesses beyond those listed by the state.

Should Hughes claim he shot Gingerella in self-defense, the prosecutors are attempting to reinforce through their questions to witnesses the fact that Gingerella was a friendly, nonviolent person who had never been seen with a weapon. In the year before his death, he had shared publicly his struggle with opioid addiction and had been clean from drugs leading up to his death, according to his parents.

Public records indicate Hughes was convicted of unlawfully carrying a weapon, a misdemeanor, in Houston, Texas, in 2005. He also has felony drug convictions from Louisiana and Texas on his criminal record.


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