Hotel death: What happened at the Red Roof Inn?
Six weeks after a woman was found dead in a Charlottesville hotel room with her companion barely clinging to life, details are finally emerging about the tragedy that claimed the life of "a beautiful person," in the words of the survivor lamenting the death of 46-year-old Laura Daly,
"I grieve her loss and miss her every day," says 62-year-old David Highfield, a former chemical company president, speaking via a statement emailed to a reporter.
Highfield and Daly, a California native who would have turned 47 on March 15, were in a "committed long term relationship," according to the attorney who transmitted the statement, William Hendricks. Exactly what transpired inside their room at the Red Roof, however, the lawyer declined to say.
On January 23, hotel staff– called to investigate after a room's occupants failed to check out– found the body of Daly and the still-breathing Highfield, who was transported to UVA hospital and placed in intensive care. Daly's cause of death has not yet been determined, according to Steve Murman in the Chief Medical Examiner's Office, who says test results are still pending.
Several weeks after the incident, Highfield was released from the hospital, and Charlottesville Police Lt. Ronnie Roberts declared the police investigation complete, referring further inquiries to the Commonwealth's Attorney's office. Since then, details have been scarce.
"That's a pending investigation," says the receptionist at the Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney's office, suggesting that any questioning of Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman would be futile.
While Highfield's attorney declined to confirm his client's line of work, online records indicate that Highfield was the operator of a Court Square-based chemical engineering firm known as Chemecol and, from 2001 to 2004, sat on the board of the UVA Patent Foundation.
Other records suggest that Highfield's high-profile corporate life had gone downhill. Patent Foundation board members who served with Highfield, including local venture capitalists Jim Murray, Kathryne Carr, and several UVA professors, either did not respond to a reporter's inquiry or declined to comment on Highfield. In 2007, Chemecol was purged by the State Corporation Commission. Then, late last year, a little over a month before the Red Roof tragedy, both Highfield and Daly were arrested at another hotel, the Courtyard Marriott on Branchlands Boulevard.
In that incident, the records showed Highfield listing his address as "York, England" and his occupation as professor at "York University." However, a search of the University of York's website yields no hits on his name, and a message left for the school's administration went unreturned.
Daly's financial hardship is readily apparent from court records, where she cites a decade of unemployment, income of just $200 a month in food stamps, and her address as simply "The Haven," the East Market Street day shelter.
According to the records, officers arrested Highfield at the Courtyard at 2:39pm on December 15, charging him with a felony count of defrauding a hotel. Daly's arrest, an obstruction of justice charge, came 11 minutes later with court records describing both individuals as "upset."
Daly was released on her own recognizance, and on January 10– less than two weeks before her death– she was found guilty and ordered to pay $201 in court costs.
If what got into the bodies of the two people at the Red Roof Inn remains unspecified, the attorney notes a devastating aftermath, one that initially seemed almost certain to consign the survivor to a lifetime of dialysis.
"Mr. Highfield suffered significant kidney damage, and as a result was on dialysis even after his release from the hospital," notes Hendricks. "He is now hopeful that he will eventually regain normal or near-normal kidney function."
Highfield was released from the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail after friends, who appear to be housing him at a county apartment complex, posted $5,000 bond. On February 16, Highfield pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge in Albemarle District Court and was sentenced to 179 days, with all but time served suspended.
So what did happen? Highfield's kidney damage is one clue, but that's not much to go on, according to a Richmond-based toxicologist the Hook consulted. (UVA toxicologist Chris Holstege declined to be interviewed, citing Highfield's former status as a UVA patient.)
"The potential causes of kidney failure are virtually limitless," says Dr. Rutherfoord Rose, director of the Virginia Poison Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. Generally speaking, says Rose, who has no connection or knowledge of Highfield's case, kidney damage can occur as a direct result of a drug taken in excess, or it can be a secondary effect, such as from a drop in blood pressure.
Another clue might be the amount of time the Commonwealth's Attorney is taking to consider charges, but Hook legal analyst David Heilberg warns that timespans should not be given much weight.
"For a serious possible charge of uncertain evidence or strength, the passage of time doesn't necessarily mean anything," says Heilberg. "There's no statute of limitations for a felony."
There are a variety of possibilities for what may have transpired, including poisoning or other harm inflicted by a third party or accidental ingestion of something toxic.
One possibility that could result in charges against Highfield would emerge if both he and Daly willingly overdosed. In such "suicide pact" cases, says Heilberg, the survivor could be charged with a variety of offenses ranging from murder to aiding-and-abetting.
"This goes to discretion and underlying background of the facts," says Heilberg, imagining a scenario in which two people are profoundly depressed and agree to die together. While mutual despondency would be no guarantee against charges, he says such a state of mind "could offer mitigation."
Such mitigating circumstances helped the mother who in March 2007 accidentally left her infant son strapped in his car seat in a car parked outside the Judge Advocate General's school on UVA's North Grounds. The temperature inside the car soared to over 100 degrees, and nine-month-old Bryce Balfour died of hyperthermia.
In that case, the Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney's office charged Raelyn Balfour with involuntary manslaughter. However, a jury, willing to believe that Balfour's punishment had already surpassed anything the legal system could muster, quickly acquitted the grieving mother (with one juror asserting that the prosecution wasted tax dollars).
While he can't comment specifically on the Red Roof incident, Heilberg says that in any complex case, prosecutors have the discretion to weigh various factors and decide whether to bring charges.
"It just might not be," he says, "something the Commonwealth wants to pursue."