Jay Luther, co-owner of the Germantown Cafe, was found dead Monday morning in a walk-in cooler inside the restaurant's east Nashville location and an autopsy Tuesday confirmed carbon dioxide is to blame.
Metro police said Luther, 47, was found when an employee reported for work around 9 a.m. and could not get inside.
The employee called the other co-owner and once they entered the restaurant they found Luther's body.
Metro police spokesperson Don Aaron said it appears Luther was accidentally locked inside the cooler.
The medical examiner Tuesday said Luther died as the result of accidental suffocation by carbon dioxide inhalation.
According to police, there was a power outage Friday night, prompting the restaurant to put dry ice into the cooler to preserve the food over the weekend.
When the power was restored Sunday night, Luther went to the restaurant around 8 p.m. and, while there, checked on the cooler. The cooler door closed while he was inside.
Metro police said the interior release mechanism was inoperable and reportedly had been prior to the weekend.
The plunger part of the release mechanism was located by police on a shelf outside of the cooler.
Luther did not have his cell phone with him. It was found Monday in his nearby condo, police said.
According to the medical examiner's report, Luther would have been overcome by carbon dioxide within just a few minutes of entering the cooler.
The cooler is equipped with a robbery alarm. Police said the alarm was activated Sunday night and officers responded to the call.
When they arrived at the restaurant at 8:34 p.m., they found the building to be dark and all doors secure.
A sign in the window gave notice that the business was closed due to a power outage.
The officers spoke to a security guard at the 5th and Main condominium building where the restaurant is located who said that the electricity had been restored prior to their response.
Given that the restaurant was totally secured and closed, and that electrical surges have been known to cause errant alarms, the officers elected not to force their way into the restaurant and the call was coded as false.
Metro police Chief Steve Anderson said he planned to review Sunday night's response to ensure that it was appropriate based on the information available at the time.
Dry ice dissipates into carbon dioxide gas, not water. Carbon dioxide vapor is heavier than air and can displace oxygen in confined spaces.
"Awesome guy, he was a great guy, very well loved," kitchen manager Jay Allis told Nashville's News 2 of his boss, adding, "I have got to get over to the other restaurant and coordinate with the staff there."
Jared Allman lives in the building and saw Luther just a few days ago in the 5th and Main elevator.
"East Nashville is a pretty tight-knit community and we all think of each other as neighbors. It's terrible," he said.
"We have been without power since Friday, it's been like the Apocalypse here," Allman continued.
Adam Barnes, Luther's hair stylist, told Nashville's News 2, "He was just really cool. He liked life a lot and he liked to experience life through food and that's what we shared a lot."
Barnes continued, "We both grew up in the south and learned to cook from our mothers and grandmothers and there's a lot of personal stories like that, that I will have to remember and cherish."
While devastated, Barnes said he doesn't blame anyone for Luther's death.
"I don't want to blame anybody because it was such a freak accident but there was another measure of protection that could have been followed," he said. "It's not the police's job just to determine from the outside if there's an emergency or not. They need to come in or at least call."
Germantown Cafe East is located in the first floor of the 5th and Main condominium building in the space previously occupied by Allium restaurant. It opened during Nashville Originals Restaurant Week last November.
It is expected to remain closed through the week.
The main Germantown Cafe location at 1200 Fifth Avenue North, across the Cumberland River, reopened Tuesday.