Testimony centers on flight to Canada, confession that followed Gingerella homicide

For more than two hours on Dec. 21, 2016, suspect Dante A. Hughes put his head down on a table in an interrogation room at the Groton Town Police Department and cried.

Detectives had just retrieved him from Niagara Falls, N.Y., where he'd been arrested as he attempted to walk over the Rainbow Bridge into Canada. They read him his rights and asked him why he shot and killed Joey Gingerella outside of Ryan's Pub 10 days earlier.

Detectives Heather Beauchamp and Donald Rankin Jr. told Hughes his parents would want him to be honest, and that being remorseful would help him in court. They brought tissues to the despondent man in the prison jumpsuit and kept their voices soft. They told him he seemed like a good guy, that they knew he had been working two jobs and helping raise his girlfriend's six kids.

Then they waited. And waited.  

Jurors watched a video of the 2½ hour interview Wednesday during the sixth day of Hughes' murder trial in New London Superior Court. The courtroom was silent for long stretches of time, except for the sound of Hughes' sniffling on the video.

Suddenly, on the big projector screen, Hughes sat up in his chair in the small interview room on Groton Long Point Road and announced, "It was self-defense."

And then, as if he and the officers had choreographed it, they were re-enacting the shooting. Hughes was on his feet, demonstrating how he had been standing at the driver's side of his girlfriend's Nissan Armada in the bar parking lot on that cold Saturday night. Beauchamp played the role of Gingerella, standing to Hughes' right, as per his instruction. Rankin got down low, taking the position of Hughes' girlfriend, Latoya Knight, whom Hughes allegedly was punching in the face and head as she sat in the driver's seat of their SUV.

Gingerella, asked by the bartender to check on Knight after she knocked a beer out of Hughes' hand and left with him behind her, had gone out to the parking lot with others, according to previous testimony.

Hughes told the detectives Gingerella came up to him saying, "Don't do it, bro." He said he told Gingerella more than once to mind his own business. Then, Hughes said, he thought Gingerella was "going for his gun." Hughes said he had his gun, which he was carrying for self-protection, in his back pocket. He said he took two shots.

"I wasn't trying to kill that boy," he told the detectives. "I thought I was protecting myself. This is my (expletive) life."

Hughes told the detectives he had thrown the gun, a Glock 9mm, into Niagara Falls.

After the shooting, he said he ran off toward Poquonnock Road, called a cab and took a train out of New London the next morning. Rankin asked Hughes if he felt better, having told his side of the story.

"I gotta go to sleep with this every night," Hughes said.

Hughes' version of his flight to Canada is contrary to the evidence that prosecutors Paul J. Narducci and Christa L. Baker have provided jurors over the past few days. 

The state alleges that Hughes stopped briefly at his home on nearby 4 Waco Court after the 1:30 a.m. shooting and shed the red jacket he had been wearing. According to testimony, he made his way to the Norwich home of his uncle, Shelton Rawls, waking him up at 2 or 3 a.m. to tell him he had killed somebody. At 7:30 a.m., he purchased a TracFone prepaid cellphone at the Norwich Walmart, according to testimony from a representative of that company.

A local man, Michael Knowles, testified Tuesday that he drove Hughes to Boston that day. From there, Hughes made his way to the Portland, Maine, area, where a taxi driver testified Wednesday that he picked up Hughes after being dispatched at 8:57 p.m. — not quite 20 hours after the shooting at Ryan's — at Madden's Pub & Grill in Falmouth, Maine.

The cabbie, Leo Cyr of South Portland, Maine, testified Wednesday that Hughes was looking for a place to sleep but the hotels were full because there was a big event. He said Hughes told him he wanted to go farther north, to Canada, and asked him if he would drive him there. Cyr said he couldn't drive him into Canada because he didn't have a passport, and it would cost a lot of money.

"He just wanted to get away from it all and a change of scenery," Cyr testified.

Cyr said he dropped off Hughes at the local shelter, wrote his first name on the back of his business card and gave it to Hughes. The card, cellphone and other items were found in Hughes' belongings when he was arrested two days after the shooting as he tried to walk over the Rainbow Bridge into Canada.

The detectives had obtained the number of Hughes' new cellphone from his father and obtained emergency access to its location from the cell service provider, according to testimony. Detective Lt. Nicholas Parham said the cellphone, which previously had been untraceable because it was turned off, "pinged" a tower in the Niagara Falls area at 1 p.m. Dec. 13. By the time he contacted Canadian Border Services authorities, Parham said Hughes already was in custody and they confirmed his identity through his fingerprints.

Hughes was detained for several days in Canada before being "deported" and turned over to U.S. marshals. Parham, Rankin and Investigator Eric Banwell retrieved him on the U.S. side of the Rainbow Bridge and took him to a local court, where he waived extradition back to Connecticut, according to testimony. Then the three cops and Hughes made the seven-hour ride back to Connecticut.

Following Hughes' confession and self-defense claim at police headquarters, Rankin dialed Hughes' mother on his cellphone and gave it to Hughes. The detectives left the interview room but the camera continued to run as Hughes put his head back down on the table and cried on the phone to his mother, a pastor from Texas.

"Ma, I told them," he said. "I told them it was self-defense. And that's what it was."

The trial resumes Thursday, when Beauchamp is expected to return to the witness stand.

k.florin@theday.com

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