A coroner has warned drug mules that they are playing “Russian roulette” after a 24-year-old Brazilian man suffered a painful death when one of more than 100 pellets of cocaine he had ingested burst on a flight from Lisbon to Dublin.

John Kennedy Santos Gurjao became so agitated and distressed on board an Aer Lingus flight on October 18, 2015, that he bit a passenger and jumped over seats.

Coroner for Cork County, Frank O’Connell, was told at the inquest into the death that Mr Kennedy Santos Gurjao became distressed about an hour into the flight.

Witness Olga Pinto said she knew John and had met him at the airport. The Portuguese woman said John seemed nervous and was sweating prior to the flight. She attributed his anxiety to travel sickness. She said that, during the flight, he was jumping over seats and that people were screaming. She translated what he was saying from Portuguese for the cabin crew. She recalled that he was shouting “I am going to die”. She said in evidence that it was as if John was “possessed”.

Stuff was coming out of his mouth and he bit a man on the arm,” said Ms Pinto. “I couldn’t tell if he was puking blood or if it was from where he bit the man. He kept saying: ‘I am dying.’

Ms Pinto said she knew Mr Kennedy Santos Gurjao was nervous going on board as it was the last day of his Irish visa and he was concerned about getting entering the country. The court heard that he planned to renew his visa when he started an English course in Dublin. She said he had previously studied in Ireland.

Witness Olga Pinot
Witness Olga Pinot

The plane was diverted to Cork Airport due to the incident. Ms Pinto was arrested in Cork after white powder was found in her luggage. She was released without charge and no charges were brought because the powder was found to be flour.

Aer Lingus cabin crew member Orla MacCarvill said she first noticed that a serious incident was underway when she spotted the “horrified” face of a fellow airline employee. She said a man subsequently identified as Mr Kennedy Santos Gurjao was climbing over seats. She said Mr Kennedy Santos Gurjao “bolted” to the toilet and locked the door. Ms Pinto told Ms he needed medication for air sickness and he took two tablets. He was given oxygen.

Ms MacCarvill said Mr Kennedy Santos Gurjao had to be handcuffed on board the flight given his level of agitation. They did not attempt to strap him into his seat because he was “too violent”.

A decision was made to divert the plane to Cork Airport. Nurses on board the flight performed CPR on Mr Kennedy Santos Gurjao formore than 40 minutes before landing. Cabin crew also tried to help him.

ICU nurse Keith Carroll, from Dublin, was among those who tried to assist Mr Kennedy Santos Gurjao. Initially he thought he was having an epileptic seizure. However, his subsequent agitated state pointed to another cause. Mr Carroll and other nurses on board performed sustained CPR in a bid to save Mr Kennedy Santos Gurjao.

Garda Owen O’Mahony said Mr Kennedy Santos Gurjao was pronounced dead on arrival at Cork Airport by a local medic.

An examination of the 113 pellets recovered from his body indicated that John had 1kg of cocaine, with a street value of €70,000, in his body.

Assistant State pathologist Margaret Bolstersaid the deceased had ingested 113 capsules of cocaine, of various sizes, which were covered in black plastic material. He died from acute cocaine intoxication.

Coroner Frank O’Connell paid tribute to the cabin crew and the nurses and doctors who tried to assist Mr Kennedy Santos Gurjao. He said they made “heroic efforts” in what must have been a frightening experience.

Speaking after the inquest, Mr O’Connell said the death of Mr Kennedy Santos Gurjao is a warning to all those who are thinking of importing drugs in their body.

Unfortunately, if you are carrying drugs in your body and one of the capsules burst, the results are probably going to be fatal,” said Mr O’Connell. “This man was simply poisoned with cocaine where just one of the capsules broke. There was no hope for him.

“As I was reading the statements, I was trying to envisage how I would have reacted if I was on board. It must have been absolutely terrifying. I was very impressed with the senior cabin crew, who coolly made the decision to inform the co-pilot that she would not be going in to the cockpit again and would be communicating with them by telephone. She didn’t know how this was going to end.”

Mr O’Connell said if something goes wrong for a mule, it is almost certainly fatal.

“It is Russian roulette,” he said. “If it is cocaine or another class A type drug, if it bursts and gets in to your system you are going to die.”

Mr Kennedy Santos Gurjao was a native of Calcoene in Brazil. He was one of nine siblings and lost his parents at a young age. It is understood that his relatives did not realise he was out of the country and the circumstances of his death came as a terrible shock. He was laid to rest in Cork at a funeral officiated by a local priest.

No details were given as to how much the deceased was to be paid for bringing the drugs in to Ireland. However, drug mules are said to make as little as €1,500 to carry drugs internally.

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