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Donaldsons seek answers about the night Seth died

Scott and Amy Donaldson pose with a photo of their son, Seth. Scott and Amy Donaldson pose with a photo of their son, Seth.

Scott and Amy Donaldson can talk for a long time about their son, Seth. But they can also sum up his death in a concise tag-team narrative.

“Two boys in the room,” Scott says.
“They have a fight,” Amy says.
“One of ’em’s got a bloody nose, the other one’s out the window,” Scott says. “That’s what the police officer told me.”
The boy out the window was Seth. He was 22.
What he was doing in the room, who else was there and what led up to his fall to the street are all mysteries that the Donaldsons — and the police and the family’s New Orleans lawyer — have not fully pieced together.
“We’re never going to know exactly what happened,” acknowledges Scott, a urologist who was a surgical resident in New Orleans when Seth was born. Dr. Donaldson and Amy don’t accept the coroner’s conclusion that Seth committed suicide. They think something else was going on, and they think somebody else — maybe the friend who had rented the room through Airbnb — may have caused Seth’s death.
“We anticipate this to become a homicide investigation at some point,” Scott says. “We have no reason not to think it will be.”
But even without finding out exactly what happened, the Donaldsons believe they have a strong wrongful death case based on the fact that a 130-pound person should not have been able to shatter a 12th story window — even if the person jumped or was thrown into it. They’ve hired Jonathan Pederson, a New Orleans attorney, to represent them in a lawsuit. Pederson thinks they have a strong case.
Investigators “have not reached a conclusion” about what happened the night of Oct. 27-28, the attorney said. “Here’s what we know. Seth was at the Saratoga Loft Apartments the night of his death. He was living here at the time, working two jobs. We know that he died on impact. We know there was evidence at the scene that was not collected, that should have been. And we know that the investigation is ongoing. Past that, in my opinion, there’s a lot of speculation.”
SethDonaldsonSeth DonaldsonThe Donaldsons and their lawyer at first were told there were two other people in the room — Seth’s friend, who is from Hendersonville, and the friend’s girlfriend.
“The coroner officially ruled it as a suicide,” Pederson said. “My clients and I both disagree with that the more that we learn. (The friend) says he jumped. The girlfriend has not been cooperative. She has refused to speak with anyone, so we don’t really know what her side of the story is. Seth had never had suicidal ideas prior to this incident.”


Armed robbery arrest

The Donaldsons know that people hearing about Seth’s death in New Orleans will bring up his robbery arrest three years ago in his hometown. According to the Henderson County sheriff’s office, Seth, then 19, and an 18-year-old friend robbed two people after they had lured them to a rendezvous in Crab Creek to sell them a cellphone. When deputies arrested Seth and put him in jail “we left him in there,” Scott says. He was locked up for 48 days.
“He went through three months of rehab” after his release, Scott says. “In the end, (District Attorney) Greg Newman said all charges are dropped, we appreciate what he’s done.” (The charges against Seth's friend were also dismissed.)
Pederson knows what he would say to people that blame Seth.
“I’d say that he did his time,” he says. “He was successfully employed at two well-established restaurants, one of them being Commander’s Palace, which is a phenomenally recognized establishment nationwide. They were extremely impressed with his work ethic, he was never late for work, he worked his ass off when he was there. This is somebody that had gotten his life on track and was doing everything right.
“Personally I believe that just because somebody might have done one thing wrong in the past doesn’t mean that they’re a rotten person,” he said. “It’s chickensh— for somebody to take that approach. It’s a human life. He still shouldn’t have gone through that window.”
All the evidence the family had at the time indicated Seth was clean.
At Commander’s Palace, the cooks and wait staff “all came out in one voice and said Seth was not trouble, Seth was not doing drugs, Seth was telling us not to do drugs,” Scott says. “He was working two jobs, working 70-80 hours a week.”
Amy received cellphone photos of Seth on the night he went over to meet his Hendersonville friends at the Saratoga, which is in downtown New Orleans. He got off work on a Saturday night. He walked a neighbor’s dog. “I talked to him that night at 11 o’clock,” Amy says.
Pederson says he has ordered the coroner’s full report, which would contain a toxicology results from Seth’s body. He hasn’t received it yet, he says.
A New Orleans Police Department spokesman, Aaron Looney, confirmed that the death investigation is “still active and open.”
“It’s considered an unclassified death by suicide,” he said. So far, investigators have found “nothing that warrants it to be a homicide.”

The 22-year-old Hendersonville man who rented the New Orleans condo through Airbnb was not reachable on his cellphone. In a brief conversation at her home, the young man's mother said her son had retained an attorney and would speak to the Lightning only through the attorney if at all.


Hendersonville kids visit New Orleans

The Donaldsons have heard various stories.
“Supposedly, there were about 10 kids from Hendersonville down there,” Amy says.
“These kids are talking amongst themselves but they won’t talk to the police,” Scott adds.
Scott and Amy have been relentless in seeking a thorough investigation and pursuing a measure of justice. They sent 15 certified letters to “big wigs,” including a police commander, a city council member, the district attorney.
“We went down there without any appointments and we finally ended up having like 10 appointments in 2½ days,” Scott says.
SaratogaLoftSaratoga Loft Apartments in downtown New Orleans.The couple sees liability on the part of the contractor who renovated the Saratoga, the owner of the condo and Airbnb, which they describe as reckless and unaccountable.
“There’s no security, there’s no oversight,” Scott says. “They take away all negative reviews.”
After Katrina, state law required builders to install “high impact’ windows that sustain 120 mph winds. Renovated in 2011, the high-rise condo building should have been hurricane-proofed, they say.
“We have more questions than we have answers,” Scott says. But on one point, they’re sure: “People aren’t supposed to go through windows. We view these windows as barriers.”
The building code would distinguish glass “you might get from a hardware store” and much thicker glass like a windshield, Pederson says. “In commercial buildings you have more of the car windshields than you do the plate glass from a hardware store.” He has not managed to obtain a sample yet. “None was kept. Now it’s covered by a plywood board.”
“To me it’s not even about whether it did or did not comply with code,” he adds. “It’s about what a reasonable person believes. In this case I believe a reasonable person would believe they shouldn’t be able to go through that window without substantial effort and multiple attempts.”
The attorney says he has several more weeks of research before he files a lawsuit, which will likely name the building owner, possibly the condo owner, the contractor, Airbnb and others.
“There’s just too many players involved and this is one that we’ve got to get right and so I am not rushing it,” he says. “It’s not a fender-bender car accident.”
Seth’s parents would each have a claim for wrongful death. Seth himself “has a claim called a survival action, which would encompass all of the fear that I can prove from the moment that he left the window to the moment he hit the ground, which would be done through psychiatry testimony exclusively.”
“It’s fascinating actually,” he says of the case. “To me it reminds me more of one of the shows my wife likes to watch on television than real life should be.”
Even if bad behavior were involved, Scott and Amy say, Seth should not have paid with his life.
“I don’t want your grandchild to go to New Orleans and get in a drunken brawl and go through a window,” Scott says. “So we are making it public. You’re stone cold sober, you’re drunk on booze, you’re on cocaine, you should not be able to go out a window without a big effort.”

* * * * *

The Donaldsons are hosting a “Pickle-n-Pig Birthday Bash for Seth” from 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday, March 23, at Guidon Brewing Co., 418 Eighth Ave. East, in the Historic Seventh Avenue District. The event honors Seth and his efforts as a cook and restaurant kitchen worker to encourage people to tip the Back of the House (BOTH). The bash features a $15 barbecue plate with fixins. Seth’s classmates and ABTech’s Competitive Cooking Team will be there to cook and share desserts as practice for a competition. Proceeds benefit AB-Tech’s Culinary School summer internship scholarships.