STANVILLE — Margie Bryant is haunted by memories of her dying son sprawled out on the floor of a cheap Eastern Kentucky motel room.
He was unresponsive, his lips already tinged blue when she kneeled beside her blue-eyed boy and called his name. Large, dark bruises marked the body of the 23-year-old, who wore only boxers. The top of his hand and head near the hairline, his chest, arms, feet and abdomen — all bore discolored marks, according to hospital records.
His wallet lay empty on the floor.
A doctor would later say that Nathan Lee Bryant had been badly beaten and was passing blood internally through his kidneys from the blows.
"Who did this to my son?" said Margie Bryant, trying to hold back tears. "And why?"
These questions remain unanswered since Margie Bryant received a phone call about 1 p.m. Sept. 6 from a person who said her son was in Room 235 of the Alpike Motel in Floyd County and wouldn't wake up. Nathan Bryant died hours later at Three Rivers Medical Center in Louisa.
Authorities have told the family that all evidence points to a drug overdose. But questions remain about how he got the bruises, and conflicting rumors circulating in the small rural community have created a haze of suspicion around his death for Margie Bryant, 53, and her boyfriend of 15 years, Anthony Lewis, 51.
The young man's death led to a severe assault and death threats against those with him that night.
"I just want to know what happened to my son," Margie Bryant said. "I need to know. Please, if anyone knows anything ...."
Life of simple pleasures
By all accounts, Nathan Bryant was a happy young man who loved people and the simple things in life.
He typically wore baseball caps and sunglasses, was a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy and had more friends than his mother could keep track of.
He didn't have a steady girlfriend.
"He didn't want to have to answer to someone," Lewis said with a smile. "That's the way he was."
A South Floyd High School graduate, Nathan Bryant lived at home with his mother and Lewis.
The three shared a close bond: Nathan Bryant helped with housework without being asked and he and Lewis frequently took weekend hunting and fishing trips together.
Lewis, who was also Nathan Bryant's boss at the Aspen Tree Expert Co. in Prestonsburg, said he thought of the young man as his son.
They drove to and from work together, chatting about life and daily struggles. Nathan Bryant was a hard worker, Lewis said, and rarely missed a day.
But the young man had a dangerous desire to be the life of the party. He went where a crowd was, which sometimes left him in the company of "a rougher group of folks," Lewis said. Nathan Bryant wasn't a daily drug user, but if he was at a party where others were using, he sometimes would too, Lewis said.
"Me and his mom were constantly talking to him about being around those people and the drugs," Lewis said. "But you know how kids are."
Nathan Bryant was arrested multiple times for driving under the influence, as well as for public intoxication and once for possession of narcotics, according to court records in Floyd and Pike counties.
"We believe that this time, he finally got around the wrong people," Lewis said.
An evening at Lucky's
On Sept. 5, a Saturday, Nathan Bryant went to work and came home as usual about 6 p.m.
He showered and dressed before leaving to spend a night with friends at Lucky's Bar and Restaurant, a new dance bar in Betsy Layne in Floyd County.
At the packed bar, witnesses say, Nathan Bryant seemed happy as he talked and drank with friends.
"He was up on the dance floor dancing and just having a good time," said his best friend, Arnie Wesley.
Wesley, who went home early because he had to work the next day, said Nathan Bryant left the bar with Angela Little Robinson, 29.
"I was going to drive them to the Alpike Motel, but Angela said she found them another ride," Wesley said.
Stories conflict about what happened in the early morning hours after the couple left the bar.
In one version, witnesses say the two were seen wandering intoxicated in a parking lot near the motel. Other stories claim Bryant was robbed and beaten with a golf club and left at the motel.
What is known is that when the two were not out of their room by 11 a.m. Sept. 6, employees came to check on them. Nathan Bryant, who was badly bruised, was unresponsive. Robinson couldn't wake him.
Robinson later told Margie Bryant and emergency workers that the young man had fallen in the motel room, injuring himself.
Robinson had not yet called 911; hotel employees made the call for help. The motel room was cleaned before police could inspect it for evidence, Margie Bryant said.
At the hospital, medical professionals told Margie Bryant that her son had large amounts of Lortab, a painkiller; Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug; and marijuana in his blood. They said he had also "been beaten very badly."
He had multiple bruises to his scalp, as well as on his arms, hands, over his heart and abdomen. A nurse said it looked like someone had kicked Nathan in his lower abdomen and "that's why he was passing blood," Margie Bryant said.
She said hospital staff seemed to think Nathan Bryant would survive once given the medication to counteract the drugs in his system. "I was worried, but I expected him to make it," she said.
Instead, Nathan was pronounced dead hours later, just after 9 p.m. Hospital reports indicate he died from cardiac arrest caused by drug overdose.
But Margie Bryant and Lewis refuse to believe those findings. They say the physical injuries must have played a role. They want justice.
"Because drugs were involved, police are not worried about it," Lewis said. "It would be understandable if Nathan didn't have all those bruises on him. But a healthy 23-year-old does not fall in a motel room and come up with those types of bruises. Something's not right."
Later in the motel room
However, Robinson says that's exactly what happened. She told the Herald-Leader that Jamie Hylton, a friend, dropped her and Bryant off at the motel when the bar closed. The two went straight to their room, she said.
She said Bryant, who was extremely intoxicated, invited women staying in a nearby room to come into their room to drink beer. The women — whose names she did not know — agreed, Robinson said, and Bryant went to put the beer on ice.
She said the motel room was divided into two rooms. In the main room there were two beds and then a step up to a small platform that held the vanity and sink. The other room was a small bathroom.
"He went to put the beer on ice and tripped on the step up," Robinson said. "He fell forward with the beer in his hands and busted his head and lip on the vanity."
Robinson said Nathan Bryant was bleeding and had a large knot on his head, but he insisted he was fine. "He was being sociable," she said. "He wanted the people to hang out and drink with us."
Robinson said the group drank beer for a few hours and then the women returned to their room.
"He and I set on the bed and talked for a little while watching TV," she said. "Next thing I know he was asleep."
Robinson said the cleaning lady woke her up after 11 a.m. when the two didn't check out on time. Robinson said she got up to shower and dress and that Bryant was breathing fine.
When she went to wake him moments later, however, she said he wouldn't respond. She tried sitting him up, but his body was dead weight and he slipped onto the floor.
"He was breathing, but he was pale," she said. "I yelled for the cleaning lady to help. I never suspected an overdose because I never saw him take a pill or anything that night."
Robinson said her life has been hell since that day. She said anonymous people have threatened her — including burning down the home she shares with her parents and two children.
Arnie Wesley and two other friends of Nathan Bryant confronted Hylton at a Floyd County bar on Sept. 9 and a brawl broke out. Wesley was charged with second degree assault against Hylton. State police said Hylton was kicked so hard during the brawl that his skull was fractured. Two others also were charged for taking part in the fight.
Hylton could not be reached for comment.
"I know Nathan's parents wants there to be another reason he died besides an overdose," Robinson said. "No parent wants to hear that. On top of that, there are all these rumors going around. I can't imagine what they are going through. But I'm telling the truth. Nobody beat him."
An 'active' case
Trooper Scott Hopkins, spokesman for the Kentucky State Police post in Pikeville, said police have interviewed 20 people in Nathan Bryant's case. He declined to comment on those statements because "the case is still open and active."
He said foul play has not been ruled out, but police are not yet calling the death a murder. Investigators are waiting for the medical examiner's report from Frankfort, which will include a cause of death based on a detailed autopsy, he said.
No matter what the report says, Margie Bryant says she wants to know what happened to her son.
"Somebody has come in there and beat this boy and I'll never believe no different," she said.