The discovery of Thomas Kolman’s body in his car in a gym parking lot was the beginning of an exhaustive effort to find out what killed him.
Nine months later, after two exhumations and multiple rounds of toxicology screening, pathologist Dr. Michael Sikirica determined that the 44-year-old Saugerties resident likely died after ingesting coffee spiked with a medical sedative, and may have been smothered to death as he lay unresponsive in his vehicle.
This week, Sikirica led jurors in the murder trial of Gilberto Nunez through his efforts effort to solve the medical mystery. Nunez, a Poughkeepsie resident with a dental practice on Washington Avenue in Kingston, is accused of killing Kolman back on Nov. 29, 2011. Nunez and Kolman were close friends; prosecutors believe Nunez killed Kolman because of an “obsession” with his wife, Linda Kolman, with whom he was having an affair.
Linda Kolman discovered her husband’s body in the parking lot of Planet Fitness in the Town of Ulster on the morning of Nov. 29, hours after he died. The next day, Sikirica, a pathologist and Rensselaer County medical examiner performed an autopsy on Kolman. Sikirica said his findings indicated that while Kolman was generally healthy, he suffered from a handful of conditions that could have contributed to his death. They included an enlarged heart and liver, high blood pressure, mild obesity and sleep apnea — a respiratory disorder that causes sufferers to stop breathing for periods of time while asleep. Sikirica said the results of the Nov. 30, 2011 autopsy were inconclusive.
“I didn’t have a good cause of death for Mr. Kolman,” said Sikirica.
Results of a toxicology test shed further light. Sikirica said he was surprised to find traces of the drug Midazolam in Kolman’s system. Midazolam, commercially known as Versed, is a sedative used in surgery and other clinical settings, only available to licensed physicians who hold a certificate through the Drug Enforcement Administration to administer it. Sikirica said he was so surprised by the presence of Midazolam in Kolman’s blood that he ordered a supplemental test of fluid in the dead man’s eyeball to ensure the initial results were not caused by “some freaky lab error.”
“It’s not a drug of abuse, it’s only found in clinical settings,” Sikirica told the court. “I have not seen it in my career except in cases where the subject has made it to the hospital and requires intubation.”
Following further toxicological screening to confirm the presence of Versed and rule out carbon monoxide poisoning from the car’s exhaust, Sikirica said that he ordered a microscopic examination of 19 tissue samples. When that failed to yield a cause of death, Sikirica said, he consulted with Town of Ulster Police — which was already focusing on Nunez as a suspect in Kolman’s death — and obtained a court order to exhume the dead man’s remains. Following the exhumation at St. Mary’s cemetery in Saugerties, Sikirica conducted a more thorough examination of Kolman’s body using an “alternate light source” to check for tiny puncture wounds that could indicate an injection. Sikirica testified that he also obtained muscle and hair samples and a “milky brown fluid” believed to be coffee from Kolman’s stomach.
Another round of toxicology screening found significant levels of Midazolam in the coffee and in Kolman’s muscle tissue. Sikirica said the findings pointed to “acute ingestion” meaning that Kolman had swallowed the drug anywhere from a few weeks to a few minutes before his death. The pathologist added that the levels of Midazolam in Kolman’s system would not be fatal in a normal person, but combined with his sleep apnea, the drug could have caused his heart to slow down or stop entirely.
“[The Midazolam levels in Kolman] are not particularly fatal in a normal person,” Sikirica testified. “But we know that Thomas Kolman had a medical history and risk factors that would make it problematic.”
Despite the findings, Sikirica was still not ready to make a determination in Kolman’s death. In February 2012, detectives with the Town of Ulster and state police conducted a combative, hours-long interview with Nunez and executed a search warrant that turned up the search term “Midazolam” on the dentist’s computer. In May, after learning that police suspected a dentist in Kolman’s murder, Sikirica obtained a court order for a second exhumation. On May 4, 2012 Sikirica conducted his exam at the Saugerties grave site. Using a scalpel, Sikirica removed four muscles from the right and left sides of Kolman’s jaw. The pathologist said that he wanted to look for high concentrations of Midazolam that could indicate the drug was injected into the mouth in a manner common in dental practice.
Tests on the tissue samples turned up significant levels of Midazolam in three of the four muscles — but not high enough to indicate an injection site.
It was not until September 2012, 11 months after the initial autopsy and nearly four months after receiving toxicology results from the second exhumation that Sikirica issued his final report on Kolman’s death. In it, the pathologist ascribed the death to “acute Midazolam poisoning.” In the report, Sikirica notes that the Midazolam levels in Kolman’s body, combined with his sleep apnea, was “sufficient to cause the decedent to become unresponsive and possibly suffer a fatal arrhythmia.” Sikirica’s notes also point to a more ominous scenario: Someone used the drug to knock Kolman out, and then smothered him to death.
“There is a strong possibility of smothering and asphyxia at the hands of another while sedated,” Sikirica wrote.
In court, Sikirica testified that smothering an unconscious subject could be accomplished by simply holding a hand over the nose and mouth and would be virtually undetectable.
“That leaves no marks,” Sikirica testified. “You could smother them without leaving a single mark that could be detected at the time of the autopsy.”
Whether the jury buys Sikirica’s analysis could prove pivotal in the case against Nunez. In his opening statement, defense attorney Gerald Shargel was harshly critical of the pathologist’s report. Shargel noted the length of time it took Sikirica to arrive at the conclusion that Kolman was poisoned, and the presence of other risk factors, like sleep apnea and high blood pressure, which could have caused a fatal heart arrhythmia. Shargel also pointed out that, by Sikirica’s own assessment, the levels of Midazolam found in Kolman’s body were not fatal. Taken together, Shargel said, the medical evidence clearly pointed to his client’s innocence.
“Proof beyond a reasonable doubt does not consist of maybes and could-bes,” said Shargel. “We don’t judge a case by any measure like that.”