FORKSTON, Pa. — Pennsylvania State Police say they now believe that carbon monoxide poisoning likely killed three men inside a mountain cabin in 2006 after new tests were conducted in the wake of a story by The Associated Press that raised questions about suspicions it might have been a triple homicide.
The AP story ran in early November 2011, several days before the fifth anniversary of their deaths, and helped prompt a renewed effort to look for answers to doubts about hospital test results and other issues in the initial investigation.
Investigators measured lethal levels of the gas during a pair of reenactments performed at the Forkston Mountain cabin using the same gasoline generator and portable space heaters that had been in place at the time. The first reenactment was performed in November, and a second one last week confirmed the results regarding the deaths of David Grasch, Tony DiMartino and Pat Mahoney.
The AP story "was not the engine, but it certainly provided the lubricating oil to assist in moving things," said Sgt. Anthony Manetta, a spokesman for the department.
David's father, Al Grasch, said he planned to visit his son's grave, feeling he could now rest in peace.
"The AP thing was the kicker," he said. "That's what caused all this to come to where it's at."
The investigation has not concluded, and significant questions remain about post-mortem tests done on the three men in the pulmonary laboratory of Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton, tests that had caused authorities to rule out carbon monoxide poisoning.
Manetta said state police intend to eventually provide the results of their investigation to the Wyoming County coroner, who has never issued a cause or manner of death for the men. They were all in their 20s and from the Philadelphia area and southern New Jersey.
"The most likely cause of their deaths was carbon monoxide poisoning," Manetta said. "The facts are leading us further from homicide."
The AP wrote about the deaths after the mothers of DiMartino and Mahoney lost a court battle to force the state police to reveal more details about the investigation. Their effort had been launched out of frustration and a belief that the official investigation had stalled.
"I truly believe that God sent me in that direction, to get the lawyer and just at least request samples and paperwork so I could look at something else I didn't have," Maureen Mahoney told the AP. "We just kept getting denied, denied, denied, and that's when, lo and behold, it goes past your desk."
The unsolved deaths created some painful rifts among the families, particularly after detectives focused in on David Grasch's surviving brother Stephen, who was later convicted of leading a cocaine distribution ring centered in Cape May, N.J.
Stephen Grasch, who was among the first people at the scene after the bodies were found, paid for a lie-detector test and wrote heartfelt letters to relatives to convince them he had nothing to do with it, but suspicions remained.
"They pretty much had us believing that my nephew Stephen murdered his own brother and cousins," Mahoney said. "I mean, that was the dark cloud."
Al Grasch said his son Stephen is now in a halfway house as he finishes a 12-year drug sentence in New Jersey. Al inherited the cabin from David and worked with state troopers to set up the two tests.
"I guess I still have some questions about why it wasn't detected and whatever happened at the hospital with the autopsies," Al Grasch said.
Manetta said an investigator is still working on that element of the case and hopes to speak with the spectrophotometer operator who recorded test results that the AP story indicated might not have been accurate. He said detectives hope to perform a new set of tests if tissue samples are adequate.
"We have carbon monoxide levels that are fatal," he said. "The blood results don't match those levels."
The hospital did not immediately respond Tuesday to a set of emailed questions about the investigation into the three deaths.
Wyoming County Coroner Thomas Kukuchka said he will not rule on the cause or manner of the deaths before he receives complete findings from the state police and is withholding judgment in the meantime.
"Once I get the information to make conclusions, we'll have it," Kukuchka said. "Before I rule on cause and manner of these deaths, someone is going to have to definitively show me that the carbon monoxide caused their deaths."
It appears the three men probably died within hours of arriving at the remote, half-finished mountaintop cabin the chilly evening of Nov. 14, 2006.
They planned to do a little work on the place, and after unpacking some bags, it appears they played chess. They called home that evening to check in, which was the last time anyone heard from them.
As relatives back home became increasingly panicked four days later, Stephen Grasch contacted neighbors in Forkston and asked them to check on his brother and cousins. Those neighbors found the three bodies in the living room area.
State police said the case was never abandoned, had been periodically reviewed and there had even been talk of a reenactment to test for gas levels.
Maureen DiMartino, whose handwritten records document dozens of calls she made to prod investigators over the years, said Tuesday that she was "numb" to learn her son's death was likely an accident all along.
"I know (Tony) wouldn't stop if that would have happened to me," she said. "He would have kept going to find out what happened. So I had him pushing me."