Regional news: Summit County overdose manslaughter trial ends in acquittal
On the night that Mark Largay fatally overdosed in early November 2015, no one thought the tragedy would lead to a homicide case. Not the sheriff’s deputies who cleared the scene as a medical incident. Not the coroner, who later ruled the death an accidental overdose on the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.
And certainly not Will Lancaster, who called 911 after trying to revive his friend and later assisted in an investigation into the death. This week, however, he has stood trial for manslaughter, a charge the jury acquitted him for at around 9 p.m. on Friday.
He was also acquitted for attempting to influence a public servant, tampering with evidence and solicitation of a person to commit a crime.
Lancaster was convicted of complicity in possession and use of a controlled substance and will be sentenced on June 19.
On the face of it, the trial asked a simple question: were Lancaster’s text messages with Largay discussing fentanyl pricing, dosages and ingestion methods prior to the overdose one of the causes of the 34-year-old’s death?
At times, that seemed almost an afterthought as the proceedings descended into salacious details of a love triangle involving Largay, his former drug court therapist, Liz Crandall, and an employee of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.
Intrigue and innuendo
District Attorney Bruce Brown acknowledged as much during his closing arguments as he sought to shift the jury’s focus away from the intrigue and innuendo that bubbled up during three days of testimony.
“The sheriff’s office had an issue because this thing is a mess,” Brown said during closing arguments. “This is not the way a normal criminal investigation progresses.”
The probe began in earnest after Crandall found texts between Lancaster and her deceased boyfriend discussing fentanyl, which tipped her off that Largay had overdosed.
She said that Lancaster had asked her to delete any texts from him on Largay’s phone, which is the basis for evidence tampering charges he faced.
On the night of the incident, Lancaster told police that his friend had a history of drug abuse but neglected to mention the fentanyl, which he hadn’t seen but knew Largay had been using.
After seeing the texts, Crandall found a bag of fentanyl patches in a trashcan, which followed a strange path to sheriff’s investigators that included a parking lot handoff from Largay’s attorney to Summit County Coroner Regan Wood.
Crandall also turned over Largay’s phone but never told investigators she had deleted as many as a thousand text messages between the two of them. She had concealed her relationship with Largay but was fired by her employer, Mind Springs Health, when it came to light after Largay’s death.
In some of those messages, Largay made suicidal threats, although Crandall never told investigators about those. Wood testified that her office would have investigated the death differently had they known about them.
That alternative theory, that Largay may have taken his own life, was a major component of the defense strategy throughout trial. Another, however, was shifting the focus to Crandall, one of the state’s key witnesses.
In closing arguments, the defense assailed her credibility, saying she misled investigators by holding back information about Largay’s mental state and destroying data on his phone.
Lancaster’s attorneys also suggested that Crandall was given a pass despite omissions to investigators because of an intermittent relationship she had with a sheriff’s office employee.
‘Lost sight of Justice’
“The sheer arbitrariness and inequity of charging Mr. Lancaster with this crime and not charging Miss Crandall has to be brought to light,” attorney Thea Reiff said during closing. “If she is just too well protected to face any type of reprisal for her actions, then that’s a problem for the entire credibility of law enforcement and this prosecution.”
Reiff also argued that Largay purchased and consumed the drugs on his own accord and that Lancaster’s communications with him were merely the “drug chatter” typical among regular users.
“In the zealous prosecution of this war on opiates, the prosecution has lost sight of justice,” she told the jury. “But the courtroom is where cooler heads prevail.”
The ultimate responsibility for Largay’s death, she said, rested with Largay himself, who died behind a locked bedroom door with nearly six times the lethal amount of fentanyl in his system.
“The only person who caused this death, Mark Largay’s death, is Mark Largay,” she said. “And this death was a tragedy, there’s no question about that. It affected the people who loved him, his family, his friends. But it was not a crime.”
Brown contended that while Largay was responsible for his death, there were multiple causes that led to it. One of those, he argued, was Lancaster’s “encouragement” through the text messages.
“This is not an intentional killing, but that does not absolve him,” he argued.
The jury deliberated for roughly four hours before delivering its verdict.