A Death in Edmonds
Last New Year's Eve, Danielle McCarthy took ecstasy for the first time with some friends. The Puyallup teenager died on New Year's Day. The State of Washington has charged McCarthy's friends in her death. But what if the drugs didn't kill McCarthy?
Danielle McCarthy was like a lot of 16-year-olds. She wore Hollister-brand clothes, worked at Orange Julius at the mall, and attended one of those giant suburban high schools. Until December 2006, she'd never taken ecstasy. But she knew plenty of people at Rogers High School in Puyallup, Washington, who had used it, including Donalydia Huertas, a fellow junior.
Danielle and her school buddy Kelsey Kerston thought ecstasy was dangerous—"you can die on the first try," Danielle and Kelsey agreed—but at some point, without telling Kelsey, Danielle changed her mind. With New Year's Eve approaching, Danielle decided to spend $50 she had saved for a navel piercing on ecstasy instead. Kelsey would be with them on New Year's Eve, but Kelsey wasn't supposed to know that Danielle and Dona were high.
At 8:00 p.m. on December 31, the girls met at Dona's house. Photos from a digital camera show them posing, puckering, and gussying themselves up in front of a vanity mirror. Two cars full of friends arrived to pick the girls up at 9:00 p.m. and take them to a house party in Edmonds. David Morris, a 20-year-old friend of Dona's, drove a Jeep that had room for just two passengers. Dona and Danielle rode in the Jeep. Kelsey rode in another vehicle—throughout the night Kelsey was the odd girl out.
The red Cherokee drove north on I-5. David handed over pills of ecstasy to Dona, and Dona handed him cash. Both girls took a pill.
The two cars arrived in Edmonds about an hour later. Ryan Mills, 19 years old, was hosting a New Year's Eve party at his mother's house. Mills's mother was away. Inside, about 18 people in their late teens and early 20s were smoking pot and drinking. Danielle opened a can of beer, but Dona warned her not to drink—alcohol and ecstasy are a bad combination, she said. Danielle chugged it anyway. Kelsey was drinking shots of Vox vodka.
Less than an hour later, still before midnight, about eight of the revelers decided to leave for a party in Seattle's University District. On the way, the cars stopped at a gas station to rendezvous with a friend whose clutch had burned out on the freeway. Danielle told Dona that the ecstasy "wasn't kicking in." Dona and Danielle both took another pill. The New Year arrived as they sat in the parking lot.
When they reached the party on Greek Row, Danielle got out of the car and immediately became ill, vomiting again and again. She urinated on herself. David and Dona cleaned her up and took care of her. Guys in the group returned periodically, one with a bottle of Aquafina, but Danielle couldn't hold down water. Dona assured friends that Danielle was fine, insisting she just had too much to drink.
At 3:30 a.m., the frat-row parties died down. Danielle slumped with her head down on the drive back in the Jeep. Back in Edmonds, Dona and David helped Danielle walk back into Ryan Mills's house. Danielle was still somewhat coherent but she was slipping in and out of consciousness, periodically waking up to vomit. If there was any suspicion that Danielle was having a bad reaction to the ecstasy or that something else was seriously wrong, what happened next should have confirmed it: At around 4:00 a.m. Danielle tensed up. She began to shake. She looked like she was having a seizure.
Nobody called 911.
Danielle's seizure lasted about five minutes, and after it ended she appeared to fall asleep. Other people began going to sleep in various rooms of the house. Some members of the group said they woke up at 6:30 a.m., but others claimed it wasn't until 8:30 a.m. that Ryan Mills started dinging a cowbell to wake the group. Danielle looked terrible. Her face was cold to the touch; her lips were blue. So, once again, the group had to make a decision. They could call 911, they could drive Danielle to the hospital, or they could take matters into their own hands.
Some guys carried Danielle to a tub they had filled with warm water, where Dona splashed water on Danielle's face. But Danielle was unresponsive. After 15 minutes, one of them lifted Danielle's arm and let go. Instead of relaxing, Danielle's muscles stiffened and her hand hardened into a cup. Everyone panicked.
But they still didn't call 911.
Ryan Mills, the host of the party, went online and found Danielle's symptoms were consistent with an ecstasy overdose. But Ryan didn't want anyone to call 911. "We were all scared because we had, like, a party there the night before," Mills would later tell investigators. "We didn't want anyone to get in trouble." Most of the people at the house had taken ecstasy, and at this point David and Dona were admitting that Danielle had, too. Calling 911 guaranteed that they would be arrested. So, instead, David and Dona wrapped Danielle in a comforter, hoisted her into the Cherokee, and drove her to Stevens Hospital. They carried her into the emergency room. At 9:43 a.m.—nearly eight hours after Danielle's first symptoms, and five and a half hours after the apparent seizure—a doctor reported that her body was cold to the touch. Her jaw was already set in rigor mortis.
That is how 16-year-old Danielle Dawn McCarthy died, on New Year's Day 2007, according to records at the Snohomish County Superior Court—records that charge David Morris and Donalydia Huertas with homicide.
In Washington, when a person dies from taking an illegal drug, the individual who supplied the drug has committed "controlled-substances homicide," according to a law passed in 1987. It's the equivalent of holding a gun dealer liable if someone shoots himself.
"It was clear who gave her the drugs and who sold her the drugs," said Deputy Prosecutor Coleen St. Clair of the Snohomish County Superior Court, who is handling the case.
A detective interviewing David Morris on New Year's Day had ascertained that he'd sold Dona and Danielle the ecstasy and placed him under arrest. But Dona, who gave Danielle the drugs, and was just 17 at the time, wasn't charged until May 2007.
The penalty for administering a lethal dose of a drug is usually 51 to 68 months in prison for adults. The penalty for juveniles is typically a month in jail.
"[Huertas] was made a plea offer [in juvenile court] and she rejected it," said St. Clair, "and if you don't accept the state's plea you'll be charged with what you should have been charged with to begin with." Huertas is now charged with manslaughter in the first degree—in adult court—in addition to the drug-homicide charge. If she's found guilty, Dona Huertas could be sent to prison for six and a half to eight and a half years.
"The difference is the controlled-substances homicide is a strict liability crime," St. Clair said, but the first-degree manslaughter charge is reserved for reckless disregard. To demonstrate Dona's disregard, an affidavit pieces together an account of the night's events to argue that Dona repeatedly rejected efforts to save Danielle.
The most damning evidence is about a dozen quotes attributed to Dona over the evening by Danielle's friend Kelsey Kerston, who recounted the night's events, with her father by her side, to a King County detective.
"Please don't let me die," Danielle begged while vomiting next to the car, according to Kelsey. When Kelsey offered to help, Dona allegedly told her, "Shut the fuck up and get the fuck away.... Danielle doesn't need your help. There's nothing wrong with her.... Stop asking and shut the fuck up, and get the fuck out of here." When Kelsey demanded to know whether Danielle had taken drugs, Dona allegedly barked, "Shut the fuck up. She's not on anything."
Incriminating details—but this is Kelsey's version of events, and the rest of her story doesn't match those provided by other witnesses.
For example, while Kelsey went inside one of the parties on Greek Row, Dona and David tended to Danielle—by the account of a half-dozen witnesses—for nearly three hours. But when the detective asked Kelsey how long the group was in the University District, Kelsey insisted they were only on Greek Row for 20 to 25 minutes, "and then we went straight back to Ryan Mills's house." The detective also asked about the car ride to Seattle.
DETECTIVE: "Anything happen between the party [in Edmonds] and getting to [the party in the University District]? I mean, as far as stopping anywhere, anything like that?"
KELSEY KERSTON: "Um-um."
DETECTIVE: "Somebody's car break down?"
KELSEY KERSTON: "No."
KELSEY KERSTON: "Um-um."
DETECTIVE: "So you left [Edmonds] at 11:30, let's say, so you got there and you already went to the gas station according to what you're saying."
KELSEY KERSTON: "I just, I shouldn't like, I should not have drink [sic], that's all I'm saying."
DETECTIVE: "Okay. So that'd be two and a half, three hours."
KELSEY KERSTON: "We were not there that long."
KELSEY KERSTON: "We weren't."
Kelsey forgot spending a significant amount of time at a gas station and appears to have lost track of about three hours that night, and excuses the lapses by explaining she "shouldn't have drink." And Dona, on ecstasy, is alleged to have screamed expletives at Kelsey. (The drug, methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, overwhelms the user with such intense feelings of love and happiness that the drug was recently approved federally for clinical trials to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.) Nevertheless, prosecutors used Kelsey's account of the night to make their case in an affidavit of probable cause.
None of the holes in the case excuses Dona, David, Kelsey, or anyone else in the group for failing to call 911. But despite an entire group's failure to respond, the charges brought against two individuals rely heavily on the testimony of one person—whose accounts of the evening are spotty. (I called Kelsey Kerston, but her mother refused to let me speak with her. I also spoke to Danielle's parents; they agreed to meet for an interview and then cancelled. David Morris' attorney said he could not answer questions about the case. And Dona Huertas' attorney did not return my calls.)
On November 30, 2007, David made a plea agreement with prosecutors, agreeing to testify against Dona in exchange for a shorter sentence. The deal may seem odd, because everyone saw that Danielle was seriously ill, knew she had taken ecstasy, and didn't call for help. And Danielle, according to Kelsey, even asked people not to let her mom find out. So everyone at the party bears some responsibility for what happened that night.
But pinning the blame on a single participant—with all parties testifying against that one defendant, who is left with no one else to snitch on—is a classic drug-law enforcement technique. And, characteristic of drug enforcement's racial disparity in prosecutions, the person who stands to serve the harshest penalty is the only non-Caucasian directly involved in the case, Dona Huertas.
Huertas is currently free on bail; her trial begins in Snohomish County Superior Court on January 25.
"This is a hot charge right now," says Douglas Hiatt, a criminal defense attorney defending a client facing similar accusations in Lewis County. A recent flourish of newspaper articles indicates rising popularity for the controlled-substance-homicide charge among Washington prosecutors. (The state attorney general's office failed to respond to my requests for records related to the number of charges and prosecutions.) In a similar case in Clark County, just across the Columbia River from Portland, 19-year-old Stetzon W. Sharp reportedly supplied a 15-year-old girl with ecstasy at a party in his apartment. After the girl complained she was too warm, partygoers rushed her to a hospital—much quicker to act than Danielle's friends—but brain swelling and seizures took her life within a couple hours. A Clark County judge sentenced Sharp to more than eight years in prison.
In every fatal overdose case, the drugs came from someone. But as the prosecutor, St. Clair, explained, the controlled-substance-homicide charge is uncommon because in most cases the overdose victim is "alone when they were found so you can't make that connection" to the supplier. But instead of preventing overdose deaths, prosecutions like these may result in more deaths. The state of Washington's position is clear: If someone calls 911 when a friend is overdosing, not only does the witness risk charges for possessing or selling drugs (which 911 callers in these situations have feared since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act), but he or she could be charged with homicide, too. The end result? Overdose victims—who might survive with prompt medical care—may be abandoned and left to die.
"It goes in the wrong direction and cuts against overdose prevention, overdose reporting, and taking someone to the hospital," says defense attorney Hiatt. "If I give you the drugs, I'll be less likely to take you to the hospital."
I can relate. When I was 17, a friend who had taken five hits of LSD showed up at my house during a small party. He misheard a conversation and believed we thought he was gay. He began to worry that his attraction to women was a charade—it wasn't—and then spiraled into an acid-induced state of terror. He began babbling like R2-D2, holding his breath until his head looked like a plum, and trying to claw out his eyes. I called 911.
A fleet of screaming ambulances and police cars arrived at my parents' house. I didn't think twice about opening the door and directing them to my deranged shell of a friend. But no sooner had they crossed the threshold than a cadre of police officers escorted me to the basement, where they handcuffed me to a chair. Officers interrogated me for hours, threatening to search my house. (My parents are out of town so I can't give you permission, officer, and besides, there's no acid at the house, nope, and he took it before he arrived, yup.) The officers finally left, but not until midmorning. My wrists were bruised from the cuffs and I've never looked at a police officer quite the same way again.
I spent the next couple of months explaining to my scowling parents and suspicious neighbors that I did the right thing: I called 911 when a friend overdosed. But I ended up being treated like a criminal.
"I read a story about four or five years ago about a drug overdose downtown," says Adam Kline, state senator of Washington's 37th District (around Seattle's Mount Baker neighborhood). "People stood around watching; nobody dared call the cops, and the guy died on the street," says Kline. "I imagine the very rational fear of arrest. It has got to cloud people's judgment."
Monte Levine, a member of the Kitsap County Substance Abuse Advisory Board, says, "There is a balance of weighing personal fear over doing what is right and humane." A woman near Levine's Bremerton home had that fear become reality: "A person was overdosing and she called to save the person's life," he says. "She was arrested."
When mothers abandon their unwanted newborns—which happens with alarming frequency—they must decide whether to leave an infant in a Dumpster, where the child is likely to die, or in a public place, where the child's likelihood of survival is higher but so are the chances that the mother will be seen by witnesses, arrested, and prosecuted. The pandemic of abandoned newborns in the 1990s spawned a popular movement to declare emergency rooms and other medical facilities "safe havens" where mothers could abandon newborns without risking arrest. In 2002, the Washington State Legislature passed such a law.
A law that encourages people to call 911 when someone is overdosing would be grounded in the same impulse: It's better to save lives than to prosecute every crime. But saving the lives of newborn babies is an easy sell and saving the lives of drug users is not.
But a life is a life to Senator Kline, who introduced legislation that would provide amnesty to people who call 911 to report an overdose. The bill, first introduced in 2005 and reintroduced in 2007 (remaining active in the 2008 session), states, "A person shall not be charged, subject to civil forfeiture, or otherwise prosecuted for a [drug offense] if... the person reported the drug overdose to law enforcement or summoned medical assistance at the time it was witnessed...."
But the bill, SB 5348, includes two exceptions: The bill stipulates that people can still be prosecuted in cases where the person who reported the overdose sold the drugs to the victim or in cases where the victim dies and controlled-substance-homicide charges result.
Those exceptions undermine the bill's intent. Taking drugs is often communal, and buying them is also a group activity, where one person obtains the drugs from a dealer and others reimburse that person for the cost of the drugs, but no profit is made on this second "sale." To complicate matters, the bill applies only to cases where the person reporting the overdose believes there is a threat to the victim's life. So, basically, witnesses have to wait until they're certain that the overdosing person is dying before they call 911—and if the person does die, the proposed law offers no protection.
Kline concedes the bill has flaws, but believes the concessions are necessary if the bill, which in its three years has never reached a floor vote in the state senate, is to become law in 2008. "In a perfect world," says Kline, "there would be an absolute privilege to call the cops or the medics when there is an imminent threat on the life of a human being, and there would be no exceptions." But it isn't a perfect world, or a perfect legislature, so Kline says the exceptions are necessary.
But if Kline's bill were to become law, would drug users understand the specific circumstances under which they would have immunity? Let's say another man is dying of a drug overdose on a downtown street. Would the people watching even know of the law? And if they did, would they know that the law's protections were ambiguous and assume that first-responding officers would construe the law narrowly, and choose not to call 911?
In New Mexico, drug users know about a "Good Samaritan" law enacted there this June—the first of its kind to become law—but "they think it's a joke," says Reena Szczepanski, director of the Drug Policy Alliance's New Mexico office, one of the legislation's backers. "They think the DEA will try to get around it."
Szczepanski says the New Mexico Department of Health distributes palm-sized cards to drug users about the limitations of immunity. One side explains that people calling 911 for overdose victims won't be arrested for drug possession; the other says there are no protections from charges for drug dealing, outstanding warrants, or parole or probation violations. In cases where people have called 911 to report an overdose in New Mexico, "police have arrived before the ambulances," says Szczepanski, and "put everyone on the floor to secure the scene while their friend is dying on the floor."
What message do these heavy-handed tactics send?
"Don't even try saving your friend's life," says Szczepanski, "we're going to arrest you."
It may have been easy to save Danielle McCarthy's life. "MDMA use in sufficient dose or under the right circumstances can be fatal, but that is very rare," explains Dr. Thomas Martin, of the Washington Poison Center and an associate professor at the University of Washington. "An overdose from two pills is very unlikely."
According to a statement issued February 5, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office ruled that Danielle's official cause of death was acute intoxication of ecstasy. But McCarthy's toxicology report indicates she had a postmortem concentration of only 0.31 milligrams of MDMA per liter of blood. Although a handful of fatalities with MDMA in that concentration have been reported, that dose is generally considered nontoxic. (Other MDMA users have been documented with 20 times the concentration of MDMA found in Danielle's blood—and they exhibited only a hangover and hypertension.)
Danielle's toxicology report also showed slight presence of MDA, a drug very similar to MDMA, and caffeine. This indicates the pills she consumed were not completely pure, which, in pills sold as ecstasy, is very common.
But unreleased portions of Danielle's toxicology report reveal something unusual: a high level of ketones, acids produced by the body when it breaks down fat for energy, and glucose at 500 milligrams per deciliter in Danielle's urine. (Information regarding the toxicology report was provided to The Stranger by a confidential source.)
If this information is accurate, Danielle McCarthy may have been suffering from undiagnosed diabetes. "This presentation of a very high glucose level and high levels of ketones could have been due to a complication of undiagnosed diabetes known as diabetic ketoacidosis," says Martin.
Ketoacidosis causes nausea and vomiting and can induce a diabetic coma—the same symptoms reportedly exhibited by Danielle on the night she died. If Danielle had been taken to a hospital, these symptoms could have been treated quickly; regulating her blood sugar and providing other basic medical treatment could have saved her life.
"I think that it is only apparent that MDMA use preceded a downward spiral that led to her death but didn't necessarily cause or contribute to it," Martin says. However, he notes, "if she did have a seizure, that is less common in DKA [diabetic ketoacidosis] and more common with MDMA toxicity."
The extent to which MDMA is actually toxic has been the source of controversy. George Ricaurte of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and colleagues concluded in 2002 that the drug causes severe neurotoxicity. Users are virtually guaranteed, the scientist reported, to develop Parkinson's disease or similar nervous-system conditions as they age. However, the findings, after being widely accepted, were dismissed the next year. Ricaurte admitted the researchers accidentally injected primate test subjects with methamphetamine, not ecstasy, after two labels on the bottles were switched.
In the vast majority of ecstasy-related fatalities, it is not toxicity that kills the victims, but complications, such as heatstroke, dehydration, or, as may have been the case with Danielle, the drug triggering a preexisting medical condition.
"Some patients tolerate a certain level well; others don't," says William T. Hurley, MD, of the Washington Poison Center. "Anyone with a challenged reserve, due to a disease like untreated diabetes, would do less well with MDMA toxicity."
If Danielle was an undiagnosed diabetic, other drugs—even legal ones, such as diet Red Bull or pseudoephedrine—could have triggered her downward spiral. She may have started down the same physiological path of lightheadedness, nausea, and ketoacidosis. In any of these other scenarios, however, Danielle or someone around her would almost certainly have called 911.
Everyone likes to believe they would immediately call 911 if they witnessed an overdose. But the fact is, the fear of being arrested and sent to prison for 5 to 10 years could make even the most compassionate person take pause. Is the person actually that sick? What if he is just passed out... would he want to wake up under arrest in a hospital room? If I call 911, what will happen to all the people at this party—will they be sent to prison because of my phone call? These ramifications may vex a reasonable person—and certainly one who is high and panicked.
If I had known as a teenager what I know now about how Washington's law enforcement handles overdoses, and how the police would treat me, in this situation I probably would have disposed of any evidence that could be used against me, my friends, or my tripping friend before I called for help. But that time would also waste precious minutes, delaying treatment, all to avoid a potential criminal prosecution.
It was the fear of criminal prosecution that prevented Danielle's friends from doing the right thing and saving her life on that New Year's Day. The negligence of her friends, ecstasy, possibly undiagnosed diabetes, and strictly punitive drug policies all conspired to kill Danielle McCarthy.
But only Donalydia Huertas is on trial.