A passerby spotted the body just after dawn March 29. It didn’t take long for Miami Police detectives to identify the man lying in a pool of blood near Biscayne Boulevard and NE 80th Street. But that only deepened the mystery.
Shaun Cole, they soon learned, was a 22-year-old Scottish soldier who had just finished a tour of duty in Africa helping with the Ebola crisis. He had celebrated by flying to Miami to meet friends at Ultra Music Festival. And — somehow — he’d disappeared from his motel and ended up dead on the roadside.
Was it a hit-and-run? A robbery gone wrong? The media exploded with speculation. Britain’s Daily Record and Sunday Mail claimed he was “killed by a hit-and-run driver.” Others said he collapsed, describing the wait for answers as “agonizing.” Miami’s already-considerable reputation for random violence burgeoned.
Four months later, MPD has at last cracked the case. Cole died, according to police and medical examiner reports obtained by New Times, after falling head-first off a building following a day of heavy drinking and cocaine use. His bloodwork also showed he’d taken a recently emerging designer drug called ethylone, or bk-MDEA, that’s now regularly marketed on the street as molly.
The Edinburgh native, who served in the First Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland, was a short, slight soldier with a blinding smile. On his latest tour, he had risked his life to help Ebola victims in Sierra Leone. “He had a flair for life and was always the life and soul of everyone he was around,” his family said in a statement sent to the media.
After police ID’ed Cole’s body, they tracked down his friends, who were staying near the crime scene at the Royal Budget Motel on Biscayne. They told detectives they had all been “consuming cocaine, beer, and other liquors” throughout the weekend at Ultra, according to a police summary. They had returned to the motel after Saturday’s shows, which ended at 11 p.m. with an Axwell/Ingrosso set. Cole vanished in the middle of the night, they said.
Detectives then found security footage that showed the soldier walking north on Biscayne around 6:30 in the morning. But it was a red-light camera on 81st Street that finally solved part of the mystery: It showed Cole plummeting from a two-story structure nearby.
But questions remained: How did the Scotsman end up on the roof? And why did he fall?
Police still don’t know for sure, but toxicology results from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Department confirm Cole was intoxicated. The soldier had a blood alcohol content of .12 — Florida’s legal driving limit is .08, by comparison — and had cocaine in his urine and blood samples.
The autopsy also showed a far less conventional drug in his system: ethylone. The compound is a synthetic cathinone — a product derived from the khat plant, a popular stimulant in the Middle East. That puts ethylone in the same category as flakka and bath salts, says Dr. Jim Hall, an epidemiologist with the Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities at Nova Southeastern University.
Researchers have noticed a spike in ethylone seizures at local drug labs in the past year, Hall says, because Chinese police have cracked down on the synthetic chemicals used in flakka and bath salts; ethylone is the next generation of chemical slipping through China to U.S. dealers. And they’re often marketing it to users as molly — which many buyers assume is MDMA, a more expensive drug to produce.
“Ethylone is the new molly,” Hall says.
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The effects are reported to be similar to MDMA’s, Hall says; however, when combined with cocaine, the drug could produce “excited delirium” — a condition linked to some of the crazier news stories tied to the use of flakka and bath salts.
“I’m fairly convinced that if he had ethylone in his system, it was sold to him as molly,” Hall says of Cole.
Either way, there’s no confusion about Cole’s cause of death in the autopsy report: blunt force trauma from his fall to the concrete.