A construction worker from Massachusetts who police say exchanged punches with a longtime friend and coworker during an argument over a cigarette has been charged with manslaughter.

Elliott Fama Photo courtesy of Fama family

Elliott Fama, 44, of Wilmington, Massachusetts, died Nov. 4, a week after he was hit in the head by his longtime friend and coworker Robert Clarke, 35, of Braintree, Massachusetts, behind the Howard Johnson hotel in South Portland.

Police say Fama appeared to lose consciousness immediately after he was hit, and fell to the ground. He hit his head on a curb.

Clarke was initially charged with assault. But weeks after Fama’s death, Clarke was indicted on a manslaughter charge, which came to light last week when it was listed in a report of 2020 homicides in Maine.

The interaction was captured on video from two angles, and lasted perhaps a minute or 90 seconds. But because there was no audio in the recording, there was no independent record of what the men were talking about or what spurred the fight.

Clarke initially told a detective he didn’t remember much about the incident, and that it was just two buddies messing around. But after Clarke was informed that there was video of the encounter, he recalled trying to reach around his foreman to get to Fama, but he asserted that he was trying to grab Fama, not punch him.

Separately, a police officer’s body camera captured Clarke on the phone at the hotel that night saying the argument started over an insult when one man asked for a cigarette and the other refused, and then escalated into a physical fight.

Clarke told the investigator that he believed Fama was faking his injury at first; police said Clarke raised his hands in a celebratory way afterward. As construction workers, they like to “bust each other’s balls,” Clarke told the investigator.

Fama and Clarke were part of a four-person construction crew that had driven up from Massachusetts earlier that day and were staying at the motel together, according to police reports filed in court.

Fama was taken to Maine Medical Center and underwent emergency surgery to address a brain bleed, but he died at the hospital Nov. 4 after spending four days in intensive care. Fama’s mother declined to comment about the incident or talk about her son, citing the ongoing criminal case.

An obituary published by a Massachusetts funeral home said Fama left behind a wife and two stepchildren, and was a proud member of the Piledrivers Union Local 56 of Boston. When he wasn’t working, Fama liked to spend time outdoors in Maine, ride ATVs and laugh with friends and family.

Clarke’s attorney, Daniel Wentworth, said the death was a tragedy, and that Clarke never intended to kill or hurt his friend. Clarke was initially charged with aggravated assault and has been released on $10,000 cash bail. After Fama’s death, a grand jury handed up the indictment on the manslaughter charge on Dec. 11, and Clarke could be arraigned as soon as this week.

“These were two friends, they’d known each other about a decade,” Wentworth said. “My client Robert had stayed at Mr. Fama’s house the night before, because they drove up together to Maine from Massachusetts. This was all a very tragic event, and Robert absolutely did not intend this result in any way.”

Prosecutors will have to prove that Clarke acted recklessly or with criminal negligence, and that as a result he caused Fama’s death. Manslaughter can carry a sentence of up to 30 years, but there is no minimum, and sentences are typically shorter.

Before the brief fight, the four men ate dinner and had drinks together at a restaurant attached to the hotel, the Coppersmith Tavern, according to a police narrative of the incident included in the court records.

The other members of the crew told police that there did not seem to be any tension or confrontational talk between the two during the meal. After they ate and paid, the four men went outside to have a cigarette behind the hotel.

Police reviewed the footage captured by the security cameras that night, and a detective’s report filed with court records says Fama initiated the contact, and either punched or pushed Clarke. At the time, Clarke was standing on a stairway, and after the contact with Fama, Clarke had to grab a handrail and sit down.

The group’s demeanor did not change after the first push, police said. Clarke then lunged from the stairway at Fama, who dodged a punch and put his arm up in defense and tucked his head under his other arm.

A few seconds later, another coworker, the crew foreman, stood between them to break things up. But the two men continued to engage with each other verbally, police said, and eventually came back together, still with their crew foreman sandwiched in between.

Police say the video shows Clarke cock his left hand back and reach around the foreman and strike Fama in the head. Fama appeared to lose consciousness immediately, fell backward and hit his head on the curb.

“It was unclear in the video why Fama punch/pushed Clarke, because neither of them appeared angry or animated beforehand, and everyone looked calm immediately after,” wrote Det. Jeff Levesque, in a summary of the investigation.

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