Rome’s Deadly Pub Crawls Kill American College Student

A 21-year-old American student died after a night of partying at Sloppy Sam’s—the latest in a string of deaths related to the capital’s raucous bar culture.

It is just after midnight on a rainy February weeknight and Sloppy Sam’s in Campo de Fiori in central Rome, the epicenter of the Roman “movida” for the international college-age set, is packed. A sign hangs over the outdoor seating area boasting “classy in the front, sloppy in the back”—the bar’s motto. A tray of free shots is passed around to new arrivals. “ALCOHOL! Because no great story started with someone eating a salad,” is scribbled on a chalkboard above the bar. The pub bills itself as as Rome’s only dedicated American bar, complete with reels of American sitcoms and sporting events playing on the big screen TVs. The smell of beer and wine from broken bottles permeates the cobblestones. “I’m so f**king drunk,”screams a young blonde American woman, who says her name is Sally (“with an S”) and that she’s from the University of Southern California. “I love Rome!”

Sloppy Sam’s and other bars along the picturesque Campo de Fiori square are popular after-party spots on pub crawl circuits that wind through Rome seven nights a week. The bars are also a thorn in the side of local authorities who, for years, have tried to appease residents by compelling the bars (with little success) to adhere to curfews and keep their tipsy patrons from breaking bottles on the cobblestones. But the square remains one of the most popular destiniations in the capital for college kids taking part in a pub crawl like those offered by Colosseum Pub Crawls. Authorities have tried to curb the pub crawl culture in Rome, but organizers say it is much safer than having people drink unescorted. A typical pub crawl night guarantees getting mind-numbingly drunk for just €20, starting with an open bar and “all the beer, wine and mixed drinks you want between 9 and 10:30 pm.” That’s before the pub crawl starts. Then the organizers of the Colosseum Pub Crawl and others take a bus full of partiers to several hotspots, offering free drinks, shots and a slice of pizza to soak it all up, along with a souvenir t-shirt boasting “I came, I saw, I crawled” to anyone who doesn’t pass out before the end of the night.

Sloppy Sam’s is where many pub crawl survivors go to finish up the evening. It is an institution among American college students studying in Rome. And it is the last place 21-year-old James Durkin was seen alive. Durkin, who had been in Rome for just a month to study economics at Trinity College on the Aventine hill, had been out with friends on February 19 and ended the night at Sloppy Sam’s. He split from the group around 1:30 or 2 am, according to friends interviewed by the police, and headed away on his own from the popular square. No one paid much attention. After all, it’s not uncommon for college kids to split up at the end of the night. No one apparently questioned where he was going or why he left the group.

But when Durkin didn’t show up for breakfast the next morning or answer his phone, his friends and the university started searching for him, launching a Facebook page and twitter handle dedicated to leads. His father flew to Rome from New Hampshire to help the search for his son. What no one knew was that when Durkin left Sloppy Sam’s, he would be dead a few hours later. He walked more than two miles in a direction away from where he was staying. He was caught on various CCTV cameras along the way—at 6 foot 1 and 210 pounds, he is easy to identify even on fuzzy tape—before finally entering a train tunnel for St. Peter’s station near the Vatican. He was alone but according to Italy’s Polfer train police, his steps looked “uncertain” as he entered the tunnel. Then no one knows exactly what happened during the next few hours, but Durkin was fatally hit by an early morning commuter train that left a central Roman station en route to Civitavecchia near the coast. His mangled body was spotted by a passenger on a subsequent train. His torso was nude and his legs had been amputated by the locomotive engine. He had no identification or phone on him and none of his documents—or his shirt—have yet been found anywhere in the tunnel or along the path he took from Sloppy Sam’s.

The train driver, who is under investigation for involuntary manslaughter, told investigator Pierfilippo Laviani and prosecutor Edoardo De Santis that he felt the train hit something, but he assumed it was an animal. “The tunnel was long and dark, but I did feel a bang around 6am,” he said, according to investigative documents. “But I couldn’t stop the train. Then I noticed blood on the engine but I had no idea if I’d hit a person or an animal.”

Friends who had been partying with Durkin the night before told Italian reporters that they feared he had taken a “deadly cocktail” of alcohol and drugs, though no one could name exactly what drugs or where he might have obtained them. Though it is perhaps no coincidence that on February 22, two days after Durkin's body was found on the train tracks, Roman provincial police arrested 19 drug pushers in just 24 hours with genetically modified marijuana and other drugs. The pushers were known to frequent areas popular with the college set.

Durkin was not a drug addict, nor was he an alcoholic. He was more likely just a normal college student who got caught up in Rome’s dangerously uninhibited college nightlife, which has claimed a number of lives in recent years. In 2012, American-Italian Alessandro Skepys Reid stabbed his roommate 25 times after a night of partying that was not so different from Durkin’s. The year before, a drunk college student fell from a Roman bridge into the Tiber River. The year before that, another tumbled off a balcony after becoming so drunk at a party she couldn’t keep her balance. In 2010 two college-age American tourists died when someone slipped rogue narcotics into their cocktails—again at Campo dei Fiori.

Toxicology reports from Durkin’s autopsy have not yet been released to the public—and may never be—but they will be of particular interest to investigators who want to understand just what sort of deadly cocktail could incapacitate an athlete the size of Durkin for so long. His father Tim Durkin said that his son was “dedicated to his studies and athletics” and had no history of substance abuse, which is easily proven by the fact that he was the captain of his football team back home, which requires a certain dedication to athletics that would be surely compromised by any sort of serious substance abuse.

One week after Durkin’s body was found, Sloppy Sam’s was hopping again. Sally, the American student, was half-asleep at a corner table after a pub crawl. “A pub crawl is a lot cheaper than buying that many drinks at the bar,” she explained. When asked if she knew about Durkin’s fatal accident, she said she did. “We all do,” she said. “Poor guy, he just had too much to drink. It’s just so scary.”