Crammed into a cab headed toward a luxury hotel in the west African nation of Ghana, Patrick Mack, Lonnie Davis Jr. and two other sailors drank shots from a vodka bottle and raved about their plans to party on New Year’s Eve 2007.
Their ship, the Fort McHenry, had made a port call in the capital city of Accra on Dec. 31 so the crew of 400 could ring in 2008. For those lucky enough to have liberty, like Mack and Davis, that meant an overnight pass to celebrate at a cushy tropical hotel.
But by the next morning, Mack and Davis lay dead in their hotel room, half a world away from the Fort McHenry’s homeport of Virginia Beach.
Ship security officers regularly warn their sailors about risks on shore before they make a port visit, a Navy spokesman said. Rarely does a night on the town turn fatal.
At the time of the deaths, the Navy announced no details about what happened. A more complete picture of the evening has now emerged through interviews and Navy records.
A top police official in Ghana initially called the deaths perplexing.
“Two able-bodied men cannot enter a hotel and be found dead the next day,” Frank Adu-Poku, director general of the country’s Criminal Investigation Department, told reporters shortly after the incident.
The Navy says it believes the two men died of a lethal mixture of alcohol and illegal drugs.
Dan Mack, Patrick’s father and an 18-year Navy veteran, wonders if it might have been foul play.
“I think evidence disappeared,” Mack said. “It’s not very logical at all.”
Accra is Ghana’s largest city, with 1.7 million residents. It has a strong nautical tradition, and the African nation is on friendly terms with the United States.
But U.S. intelligence reports warn that Accra has a dark side. It’s become a major transit hub for heroin smuggled from Asia to Europe and the United States, according to the CIA World Factbook. It’s been cited for widespread crime and significant domestic use of cocaine and marijuana.
With that knowledge, the Fort McHenry’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Martin Pompeo, set limits on liberty. Sailors were restricted to four hotels approved by the U.S. Embassy. They also were ordered to stay in groups of no fewer than three. A total of 71 sailors from the amphibious warship were granted liberty, according to a Navy report on the incident.
Liberty policy typically is set by fleet commanders and can be tightened by commanders of individual ships, said the Navy spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. John Daniels. Ships usually send a small team of security officers to port before a visit to consult with local and embassy officials about safety, he said.
Not every sailor is granted a pass, he added. “Liberty is a privilege.”
Mack and Davis booked a room with a third sailor at La Palm Royal Beach. The luxury hotel is set on the Gulf of Guinea and boasts swim-up bars, the country’s largest pool, and high-end shopping. The Navy considered it a worthy place for flag officers to stay, and the hotel hosted President George W. Bush during his visit to Ghana in February.
Mack, from Michigan, and Davis, from Georgia, had become good friends during their time on the ship, Mack’s father said.
Their Navy careers were quite different.
Davis, 35, entered the Navy later in life, in 2007. He served as a fireman and engineman. He was a junior sailor trying to straighten out his life, Dan Mack said.
Patrick Mack, 22, spent four years in Junior ROTC and graduated with honors from Center Line High School in Warren, Mich., according to the local paper.
His father said he never caused any trouble growing up. Patrick’s greatest vice, Dan Mack said, was being a huge fan of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings and paying a premium for tickets so the two of them could watch the playoffs together.
Although joining the Navy was a family tradition, Dan Mack said he did not want to put pressure on his son and tried to dissuade him from enlisting. But Patrick chose the sea service anyway.
He rocketed through the ranks, rising to first-class petty officer in four years. His supervisors trusted him to host and train a Ghanaian sailor aboard the Fort McHenry, Mack said.
Around noon on Dec. 31, Mack, Davis and two other sailors left the ship and headed for their hotel, according to a report, known as the manual of the judge advocate general, compiled by Navy investigators.
Mack, Davis and the other two sailors – the Navy withheld the names of several sailors mentioned in the report – reached the hotel about 2 p.m. They were given Room 302, a ground-floor suite with two twin beds and a sliding glass door that led to a patio.
A bout 4 p.m., the men decided to stock up for an evening of partying. They took a cab to a nearby mall, where they bought several bottles of vodka and rum, a six-pack of beer, and energy drinks.
Stuck in traffic on the cab ride back to the hotel, Mack and the others talked about past drug use. Mack admitted that he had smoked pot and tried pills and other hallucinogens, according to the report.
The sailors broke the seal on a bottle of vodka and passed it around, drinking shots. They made it back to the hotel at around 6:15 p.m. and changed into their swim trunks.
They continued the party – and the drinking – by the pool, chatting up local jewelry vendors. Mack invited one of them up to Room 302. It was about to become ground zero for a wild night.
When another sailor stopped by the room, Mack, two other sailors and another local man were inside. The local man told the sailors he had called some girls and they were on the way.
The sailor who had just entered the room noticed a tiny plastic bag, smaller than a penny, with “white stuff” in it, the report said. The sailor assumed it contained drugs, but Mack dismissed his concerns. That sailor was the only person to tell investigators that he saw drugs.
The New Year’s Eve drinks continued to flow. By 9 p.m., two local women had arrived. Other sailors circulated between the restaurant, the pool and Room 302. Several told investigators they saw no sign of drug use in the room.
Mack and another sailor soon left the party and climbed into a black SUV with red striping. A sailor on shore patrol duty spotted the two men with large wads of cash before they drove off. Their actions seemed more foolish than suspicious, he said, and they seemed to recognize the driver of the SUV.
By 11 p.m., Mack was back in the room with Davis, a third sailor and the two women. One of the women had sex with the third sailor while his shipmates goofed around and watched television. They rang in the new year with more drinking.
At 1 a.m., the Navy ordered a muster in the La Palm Royal Beach lobby to account for the 13 sailors who checked into the hotel. The third sailor, who described Mack and Davis as his best shipmates, escorted the women from the room.
They left Mack and Davis sleeping soundly on the two twin beds.
After muster, the third sailor and members of the shore patrol went to Room 302 to check on Mack and Davis. The sailors appeared to be asleep; Mack was snoring.
The third sailor got a bottle of water from the lobby, returned to the room, and fell asleep on the floor.
He awoke the next morning and watched television until 9:45 a.m., when he went to the restaurant to check on breakfast hours.
He returned to wake his shipmates, but neither Mack nor Davis could be stirred. Doctors rushed to the room and performed CPR on the two men but could not revive them.
Toxicology tests later revealed both men had alcohol, cocaine and opiates, likely heroin, in their blood.
The Navy concluded that the mixture killed them. The deaths were listed as “undetermined because of the undetermined nature of the number and identities of other individuals involved.”
Investigators also found that the ship’s commanding officer “took all reasonable precautions possible to ensure a safe overnight liberty environment.”
After speaking with Navy investigators and Ghana officials, Patrick Mack’s father said he believes foul play might be involved. Patrick had no history of drug abuse, he said, and his future looked bright. He had recently married.
Dan Mack said he believes that evidence was removed from the hotel room, which showed few signs of the night’s party when investigators arrived.
The autopsy found no needle marks that would have indicated the men knowingly injected heroin.
Dan Mack said Navy investigators told him in October there might be more evidence to gather.
Mack also visited the Ghanaian Embassy in Washington in late October. He said he received few answers to his questions: Have the two local women been found and interviewed? Have any of the locals seen in the hotel room been interviewed? Did hotel security cameras capture the incident? Could someone have slipped the sailors a fatal dose of drugs?
The embassy did not respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment, nor did the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
Mack said he will continue to pursue the case.
“I could care less about legal fees,” he said. “I want to know what happened.”
Credit: Louis Hansen