RYE BEACH, N.H. — John Nolen Durkin, a star student-athlete from Rye Beach, was drugged, beaten and robbed before being killed by a train on tracks near St. Peter’s train station in Rome, in the early morning hours of Feb. 20, 2014.

A team of experts hired by the Durkin family reached that conclusion after 28 months of investigation.

“Evidence and estimates of how John died lead us to strongly believe that John was drugged and likely attacked and robbed, since neither his international cellphone nor money were recovered,” the family said in a statement.

The presence in his blood of gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), commonly known as a date-rape drug, leads the Durkins to believe John, who was 6 feet, 1 inch tall and 210 pounds, was targeted by a criminal or criminals. The toxicology report also revealed John had alcohol in his blood, but no other drugs or substances were present.

The Durkins’ pathologist reports John was struck on the right side of his head several times by a blunt instrument or fist blows, suggesting he was involved in a physical altercation prior to the train accident. John’s right hand was also bruised and swollen from having likely struck back.

“Given the ingestion of the GHB drug, the pathologist reported that John would likely have been very disoriented, particularly after being attacked and hit, which may explain why he walked in an opposite direction from Campo de Fiori to his campus housing,” the Durkins said.

Durkin, 21 at the time of his death, was an economics major at Bates College and a starting linebacker for the Bates football team. He went to Rome his second semester, junior year to study business and economics at the Trinity College Rome Campus. On Feb. 18, two days before his death, John spoke to his mother, Liz. He expressed excitement about the program and said the campus was in the “perfect” location.

John was eagerly making plans to travel across Europe during the semester and was looking forward to visiting Venice that weekend with his program. He and a Bates teammate had joined a nearby gym and were working out regularly, his family said.

As he had on most evenings, John spent his last night dining out with friends from the program, the Durkins said. After dinner, they headed to a bar called Sloppy Sam’s at the Campo de Fiori, a gathering place for American students with a nightly happy hour from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. John was last noticed leaving the bar by himself at about 2:30 a.m. He was found dead on tracks in the railway tunnel at 6:35 a.m.

Friends and family describe John as mature, self-disciplined and a leader who had always protected others.

“The irony here is John was the ultimate caretaker,” said his mother. “He was the one people would seek to help them. He was like a father figure even though he was so young. He was strong, smart and so proud of himself. In knowing John, if it could happen to him, it could happen to anybody.”

The Durkins said they are sharing details of the investigation and pathology report at this time to raise awareness of dangers facing students who study abroad. The alleged murder in Rome last week of a 19-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison student adds to their sense of urgency.

Setting the record straight

The Durkins also want to set the record straight on some of the early, inaccurate reports in the Italian press, picked up by American media, about their son’s death.

“There’s still this perception, a lot starting with the press in Rome, that this was just another young American getting drunk and wobbling down a train track thinking it was a road or something and there is so much more to this story,” said Tim Durkin, John’s father. “For us, it’s important that people know the truth, and for John’s legacy, too.”

At the time of John’s death an Italian newspaper, citing Rome police, reported a surveillance video showed John “staggering” along the tracks toward a railroad tunnel. The Durkin family said this is simply not true. According to their investigation, there were 18 video cameras at the train station, but only one was working the morning John was killed.

“John is briefly seen in a video at approximately 5:15 a.m. walking on a platform and then into the St. Peter’s train station,” the family states. “Contrary to numerous press reports, there is no video evidence of John walking on the railroad tracks toward the tunnel. John was found in the tunnel at 6:35 a.m., one hour and 20 minutes after he appeared in the video image at the train station.”

There is no other video evidence of John’s movements between the time he left the bar alone at about 2:30 a.m. and the time he was found dead 1.5 miles from Campo de Fiori and in the opposite direction from the Trinity campus, the Durkins said.

Investigators found many of Rome’s street video cameras out of order and cameras that were operational had already deleted their images before their private investigation began six days after John went missing, the Durkins said.

As a family, the Durkins had experience with study abroad programs. John’s parents both studied overseas while in college. His older brother Ted, now 27, had studied in Perusia, Italy. John’s older sister Clare, now 26, had studied in Paris.

“I try to warn my kids about everything,” Liz Durkin said. “But one thing I never said to John was, ‘Watch out that someone might drug you.’ It didn’t occur to me to warn him about that.”

A warning to others

The U.S. State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security in its 2013 crime and safety report for Rome notes: “Americans have been the victims of crime in the Colle Oppio area near the Coliseum. Typically, the victim is befriended by strangers (typically in a bar or in a public park setting) offering drug-laced drinks designed to render the victim unconscious. The victim is then robbed, sometimes physically assaulted and sometimes hospitalized as a result of injuries sustained. Many victims of this crime wake up the following morning, often in a nearby park, with little or no recollection of the events.”

The number of college students studying abroad has tripled over the past few decades, according to The Open Doors Report, created by the Institute of International Education in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. In 2013-14, 304,467 students, about 10 percent of all American college students, participated in a study abroad program.

“We want people to understand what happened and to create awareness of the safety and security concerns not only in Rome but in all these programs as they become more and more mainstream,” Tim Durkin said.

Thomas Pasquarello, a principal at USA Global Secure, has spent 35 years working to protect businessmen, diplomats and students around the world. He recently retired as the police chief of Somerville, Massachusetts, home to a Tufts University campus and next door to Harvard and MIT in Cambridge.

“I have never seen such a hidden danger as exists today as more and more universities have students traveling abroad,” Pasquarello said. “The programs are protected by so many people involved because there is a huge amount of money to make.”

Pasquarello, who spent years in Italy working for the Drug Enforcement Administration at the Department of Justice, said tourists in general, and American students in particular, are regularly targeted by criminals in Rome and called the use of GHB to incapacitate victims “very common.”

“Whether it’s being hit by a train, falling off a bridge overpass into the Tiber River; whether it’s being assaulted or sexually assaulted and waking up the next day in a strange place, in Trastevere, in Campo de Fiori, these two areas of Rome are the areas where students, particularly Americans, are going to be exploited,” Pasquarello said.

“If you go to the U.S. Embassy in Rome on any given day, you’ll see probably half a dozen to a dozen students all lined up because they’ve got lost passports, because they’ve been assaulted, because they’ve been the victim of a robbery,” Pasquarello continued.

Two recent student deaths in Rome have striking similarities to the Durkin Case.

Beau Solomon, 19, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was found dead Monday, July 4, in the Tiber River. His brother, Cole Solomon, 23, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Monday that investigators were treating the incident as a murder. He said his brother’s body was found with a head wound and blood on his shirt. He added that thousands of dollars were charged to Beau Solomon’s credit card after his disappearance.

Solomon went missing just a day after he arrived in Rome to attend classes at John Cabot University. On Tuesday, police charged a homeless man with Solomon’s murder.

Solomon’s death mirrors that of Andrew Mogni, a student at the University of Iowa who was found dead Jan. 14, 2015, on a quay by the Tiber River, his wallet, cellphone and gold cross missing. Mogni also attended John Cabot University in Rome. Both young men died the day after arriving at school.

Sheryl Hill, who started the website Departsmart.org after her 16-year-old son Tyler died on a People to People ambassador trip to Japan, notes that while crimes on American campuses must be reported under the Clery Act, there is no such requirement for programs abroad. When she wrote to the U.S. Department of Education seeking more information on the recent spate of John Cabot University student deaths, she was told that because it is an international school, John Cabot University “is exempt by law from reporting crime statistics to the department.”

Hill is working with families and state legislatures to make study abroad programs accountable under U.S. law.

“No department in the United States, not Education, Commerce or Justice, has any jurisdiction to stop the victimization of our kids,” Hill said.

Pasquarello agrees more needs to be done to hold study abroad programs accountable.

“Unlike American universities, which must report under the Clery Act, there are no records in place for these study abroad programs,” Pasquarello said. “So the assaults, the sexual assaults, none of that gets reported. We’ve been fighting for legislation that says reporting for students overseas should be the same reporting that takes place domestically with the Clery reports.”

Pasquarello and Hill both said American universities are putting profits ahead of student safety.

A great leader

From an early age John was a standout student and athlete.

“There was never any doubt as to who should carry the ball on a 4th and goal, or be at middle, or strong side linebacker on a goal line stand,” wrote one of John’s former Portsmouth Youth Football coaches in a note to Tim and Liz following John’s death.

John also excelled at baseball, basketball and swimming and by his senior year was a football captain and MVP at Governor’s Academy in Newbury, Massachusetts. He was named “All Independent School League” and second team “All New England.”

“At the academy, John was a conscientious student who not only focused on his own academic record but that of his close friends,” his family wrote in his obituary. “He wrote for the school newspaper, sang in the choir and was a student proctor his senior year.”

John enrolled at Bates College in the fall of 2011 where Ted and Clare had also attended. He made the football team as a freshman and soon was starting at strong side linebacker.

During his college summers, John worked for the Isles of Shoals Steamship Co. as a crew member on the M/V Thomas Laighton. He also maintained a strict workout regimen to keep himself in top physical condition. “Summer is for fall,” he’d tell his parents.

John’s brother Ted, a Bates’ football captain who graduated the year John graduated from Governor’s Academy, says John’s strength as a player was his knowledge and understanding of the game, combined with his strong work ethic and grit.

“John was just very tough, very strong. A great leader,” Ted said.

In addition to his parents and older siblings, John also had a younger sister, Ginny, 20, and a younger brother, Trevor, 17.

While John is no longer physically present in the Durkins’ home, he remains a constant presence in the family’s daily life. The Durkin family recalls many stories describing John’s competitive spirit in backyard Wiffle ball games and marathon ping-pong matches, his affection toward his dog Rex, his quick wit, large circle of friends and enduring kindness and generosity.

The Durkin family has established the John Nolen Durkin ’15 Scholarship Fund at Bates to honor John’s legacy by supporting student athletes. To date, the fund has granted four scholarships to deserving students and the family is grateful for the outpouring of support to John’s fund, a reminder, they say, of the inspiration and strength he possessed.

The family also hopes other students will hear about what happened to John in Rome and be fully aware of the dangers facing Americans studying abroad.

“There is a message here for kids studying abroad,” Tim Durkin said. “You have to be aware of your surroundings, never let your guard down and avoid places like Campo de Fiori that have a reputation for criminal activity targeting young Americans.”

Reprinted with permission of The Portsmouth Herald.


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