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A teen party, a mysterious death -- and a town's unanswered grief

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The telephone rang shortly after 8 a.m. on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. The caller was a friend of my son's who said he needed to speak to him. "It's important," he said.

I carried the phone into James' bedroom and shook him awake.

"Joe?" he said into the telephone. "Joe who?"

The call lasted only a couple of minutes, and my son looked up at me, dazed.

He said Joe Loudon had attended a party the night before, drank some alcohol and was dead. Patrick "P.J." Gabrielli, then a high school junior who hosted the party, was in jail.

Joe and P.J. lived across the street from each other and a couple of blocks from us. We knew them well.

Minutes later, through his closed door, I heard James cry. His sobs were hoarse and heavy like a man's, but as plaintive as a wail. They filled our house.

My son was 17. Joe, 16, had been his friend.

The tears have not stopped flowing in Orinda, the little town where we live and where three students face possible charges in connection with Joe's death. The grief that at first united the town later wrenched it apart. Miscues in the investigation led some people to point fingers, convulsing the community in a debate over whether Joe's death was an accident or a crime.

Blogs became a community forum for angry and emotional teens and their parents. Some saw a witch hunt, a need by the community to find someone or something to blame for the sudden death of a much-loved boy, an athlete and A-student who attended church regularly and was widely liked by his peers, teachers and coaches.

Others talked of a coverup, a wall of silence. The threat of a wrongful-death lawsuit and criminal prosecution prompted some parents to hire lawyers, who advised kids not to speak. Marianne Payne, Joe's mother, wanted answers. She complained that teens had been slow to tell police what had happened at the party.

"The summer of Joe," as my husband called those months, became a time of grief and guilt, when police -- criticized for not having busted the party before Joe collapsed -- began to crack down and parents fretted when their kids went out at night.

Even now, the town remains unsettled. We still do not know why Joe died. Medical examiners continue to search for answers, and we wait.

An upscale, hilly community bordering the wooded Oakland-Berkeley hills, Orinda has a rural flavor, with curbside mailboxes, few sidewalks and abundant creeks and wildlife.

Youth sports are wildly popular in this competitive, child-centered community. A trip to Safeway means running into people you know, usually from the schools, the swim team or baseball.

An Orinda address connotes wealth. Stay-at-home mothers include MBAs from Harvard and Stanford, doctors and lawyers. Many live in mansions, some in gated estates.

Joe's family -- and mine -- are part of another, less affluent Orinda. Joe's parents are transportation planners. His father earned his doctorate at MIT, his mother her master's at USC. Like most families, the Loudons moved here for the city's high-achieving public schools.

Payne said she wanted a "safe" place to rear their boys.

The party was held on May 23, when P.J.'s mother, stepfather and younger sister were away with friends for the night. Ali, then 19, P.J.'s elder sister, was home from college.

Teens came and went all night. They paid $5 and received a black X on their hands that entitled them to imbibe. Hard liquor flowed, including Jello shots. Police said a high school sophomore purchased the alcohol with a fake ID. P.J., who had just turned 18, was with him.

Partygoers told investigators that Joe was in good spirits. He had been at a movie and arrived at the party between 8:30 and 9 p.m., said Michael Mahoney, the private investigator hired by Payne.

Teens told Mahoney that Joe drank some beer, then switched to water. He did not appear intoxicated and danced several times, they said.

Between 10:30 and 10:45 p.m., Joe "fainted" in a hallway in front of a handful of students, Mahoney said. P.J. and Ali were not among them. Teens told the investigator that Joe lost consciousness for a minute or two and looked bluish. He did not appear to be breathing.

No one called 911. A girl performed CPR, and Joe appeared to revive. He insisted he was fine and walked to a bedroom to lie down, Mahoney said. Some of the teens promised to watch him.

Joe was left alone for five to 10 minutes. During that time, he vomited and aspirated, Mahoney said. Somebody walking by the darkened room noticed an overpowering smell, saw Joe covered with vomit and shouted for help.

Some of the kids decided to put him in a shower, then changed their minds and brought him into a hallway, Mahoney said. Joe's face was purple, his lips blue.

P.J. and Ali performed CPR. Ali and others screamed for someone to call 911. The call was made about 11 p.m., a couple of minutes after Joe had been found in the bedroom, Mahoney said. The girl used a cellphone and could not immediately give the address, police said. The boy with the fake ID kept insisting Joe was fine, teens told investigators.

Payne, alerted by a call that her son was in trouble, came out of her home amid flashing red lights and sirens and ran across the street. She was told to wait on the lawn. The girl who called 911 approached her. She reeked of alcohol and slurred, according to a police report. The girl told Payne that others had not wanted her to call 911.

Joe was pronounced dead shortly after he arrived at a Walnut Creek hospital.

Bill Loudon, who is divorced from Payne, received a call from her that night but did not get the phone in time. The next call came from the Orinda police.

He said an officer told him his middle son had died of alcohol poisoning.

Payne spent hours alone with Joe's body, waiting for the coroner. Her son's right hand bore the black X.

"When the coroner arrived, I remember the feeling much like when Joe was born -- fear of handing him over to someone I didn't know," Payne said months later.

Joe Loudon typically did not go to parties. That he would be the subject of news stories about binge drinking seemed an insult.

Bill Loudon said his son would have been "excited" about going to a party with fellow athletes and girls. He described Joe as a "fun-lover," who in elementary school once made his friends laugh by plunging his head into a toilet and flushing.

Freshman football "just changed his life," Loudon said. "I never saw him commit to anything like that. Something in that season just ignited a drive, a drive to work hard."

Joe was exuberant and popular, but not stuck up. James told me Joe was "going places."

He spent spring break on a church trip, working at an orphanage in Mexico. For his Eagle Scout project, he raised money to buy poor children shoes and athletic equipment. He was spiritual. Fellow athletes noticed him praying before competitions. Joe had a 3.8 grade-point average, despite playing on three teams.

Word of Joe's death and details about the party spread rapidly on Facebook that Sunday morning. Unable to stop crying or sit still, I bought food for Joe's family. When I arrived at his home, Joe's cousin was outside, holding back tears. He said Payne did not want visitors.

I handed him a box of groceries and hugged him. I had somehow hoped he would tell me that Joe was in the hospital, still alive and recovering.

I glanced across the street to P.J.'s house. It looked deserted.

Santa Maria Catholic Church, which Joe, P.J. and my family attended, sent out an e-mail announcing a Mass for Joe at 11 a.m. My red-eyed son headed out the door to attend, and my 20-year-old daughter and I followed.

The church was packed. Teens, many not Catholic, filled the aisles. Some boys wore their football jerseys.

After Mass, most of the teenagers gathered outside. There was a huddle of beefy football players heaving with sobs. A weeping girl kept saying, "I was with him. . . . He was fine, he was fine."

My son left to go to a home where some of Joe's friends were gathering. Several hours later, unable to contact him, I called his girlfriend. Having lost one friend, he also was worried about another. He had gone looking for P.J.

When my son returned home later that evening, he told me he had found P.J. with another friend. P.J. was distraught, drained, James said.

I have known P.J. Gabrielli, and his mother, Isabel Hamilton, since our boys were in preschool together. P.J. is quiet and easygoing, with a sheepish smile. He is a good student and talented athlete. On weekends, he earns money busing tables at a restaurant. Like Joe, P.J. was not considered a partyer.

Hamilton said she was in her friends' kitchen that Sunday morning when her daughter called.

Ali had been taken to the Orinda police station, and P.J. had spent the night at the county jail. Police want them charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and furnishing alcohol to someone under 21, both misdemeanors.

Hamilton said she picked up the telephone and heard Ali crying uncontrollably.

"Mommy, Mommy," Ali sobbed.

"Where is P.J.? " Hamilton asked.

Ali continued to cry.

"Is he with you? Is he in the hospital?"

She couldn't get her daughter to speak.

"Is he alive? Is my boy alive?"

"P.J. is alive," Ali finally said. "But Joe Loudon died."

Hamilton said she moved to the floor, and her husband took the telephone. He made arrangements with friends to get Ali and bail out P.J. When Hamilton saw her son later that morning, she said, "he was completely broken. He could not stop crying. He sat on the floor, his face on the couch, sobbing for two hours. . . . Ali had her head in her lap, crying."

Hamilton said that P.J. told her he had whispered to Joe while giving him CPR: " 'Joe, come on, come on. We love you.' "

Hamilton called a friend who was a minister, and he met alone with P.J. for an hour that Sunday. P.J. wrote letters that evening to Joe, his parents and his two brothers. He insisted on going to school Tuesday.

His friends say he was shattered. He had scrawled Joe's jersey number, 18, in ink on his arms. The students at Miramonte High School supported P.J., and many complained that the media were implying he was responsible for Joe's death.

The school created a memory wall, where teens could post notes to Joe. Bill Loudon had been told about it and left the mortuary for the school. He found P.J. at the wall, hugged him and told him to be strong. Joe had "looked up to" P.J., Loudon said. He did not blame P.J.'s "mistake" for Joe's death.

Loudon returned later with his eldest son, and P.J. was still at the wall, Loudon said.

Loudon also spent time with Ali and met with the girl who administered CPR to Joe at the party. They cried together.

TV crews showed up at the high school and at P.J.'s house. The track coach asked my son to speak with reporters.

He looked into the camera and said Joe was "by no means a party guy." The constant stories about Joe, binge drinking and P.J. infuriated James, who glared at me as he complained about "the media."

Joe's funeral was private, but the school held a candlelight vigil that Friday night and a memorial the next day in the football stadium. Joe's father and brothers were there.

An announcer said Payne wanted to attend but could not. Her suffering was crushing. She had been only steps away while her son was dying.

Matthew Loudon, 17, recounted the viewing of his brother's body at the mortuary. A sheet had been pulled up to Joe's head, and a candle burned. Matt tried to cradle Joe's head. He said it was heavy and cold. He ended by describing his brother as a "superhero," recalling that Joe wore his Captain America T-shirt the night he died.

Bill Loudon later told the high school that he hoped students would learn from Joe's "mistake."

James drove to Joe's house in the evenings during those first weeks and parked outside, talking to his absent friend.

I took to walking by. Flowers and meals had been left on the doorstep. The school eventually e-mailed parents that the family was not there. Payne said she could not bear to live in the house without Joe. She moved out the day after he died and now lives in a neighboring town.

"Over the past week I have been overwhelmed by generous offers of support from so many people -- all or most have offered 'anything -- anything I can do to help you -- just ask,' " Payne wrote in a letter to the community about a week after Joe's death.

"I am now asking -- pleading -- for your help. I need information -- and the Orinda Police need information -- and we need answers about Joe's death."

She said only a handful of people had come forward.

"Those of you who were at the party know. This is the hour when you are called to be your best selves, to stand for truth and not hide from your responsibilities. Joe's life has ended, you are all witnesses and your lives will be defined by your actions."

Payne said the community "chilled" to her after that letter.

Mahoney, Payne's private detective, came to our door a few weeks later and interviewed my son.

James had driven a friend to the party earlier in the night and returned about 10:15 p.m. to pick up the boy, who was planning to spend the night with us. James, his girlfriend, my daughter and I had spent the evening watching "Marley & Me." When my son pulled up in front of P.J.'s house, he noticed a police car outside. Someone had complained about noise.

James was in the house for a few minutes. He saw Joe, who looked at him expectantly, as though he wanted to socialize. But James was in a hurry. He told his other friend the police were outside, and the two left. James later was haunted that he had not urged Joe to leave too.

James slipped deeper into grief after the interview with Mahoney. Although he had no first-hand information about what had happened, friends who did could be called as witnesses in a criminal prosecution and civil lawsuit. Tom Payne, Joe's uncle and godfather, had suggested that manslaughter charges might be appropriate.

Hamilton, P.J.'s mother, hired Mary P. Carey, an attorney, to represent him. Careers and personal lives intersect in our small community. Carey is a friend whose children attended the same schools as Joe. She and Payne had volunteered together in the classroom.

Hamilton said she saw Joe's mother drive up their street a couple of months ago to check on her empty house. Hamilton said she held out her arms, palms up. Payne kept driving.

The long-awaited autopsy results, announced in mid-July, stunned the community: Joe's blood contained a high amount of papaverine, a drug used to expand blood vessels and also to treat erectile dysfunction.

His blood-alcohol level was low -- 0.03% -- the equivalent of about a beer. The report said alcohol and papaverine contributed to his death. He had choked on his vomit.

Another round of media reports about the sex drug followed on TV, radio and in local newspapers. Rumors flew about who might have slipped Joe the drug. Payne's investigator grilled teens, and police interviewed pharmacists.

Payne said she was certain Joe would not have taken the drug. She wrote to the district attorney and said she believed "serious crimes" had occurred. She told me later that she felt "villainized" by the community "for seeking the truth."

"I became known as 'that mother' who should just let her son rest," Payne said.

The Orinda police turned over their case to the district attorney in late August. In addition to the Gabriellis, the 16-year-old who used the fake ID to buy the alcohol was facing possible charges. The investigation also led to a federal indictment of a man who allegedly made and sold false government identification cards. Prosecutors have a year to bring charges.

Orinda Police Chief William French said the probe found nothing to indicate that Joe "was forced to consume any alcohol or drugs." French also said there had been a "significant delay" in calling 911.

Two months passed before the source of the erectile dysfunction drug was revealed.

The Northern California Transplant Bank, which had processed Joe's tissues for donation, told Joe's parents in letters that it had administered the drug after Joe's death as part of the tissue retrieval process.

With the drug no longer considered relevant, embarrassed authorities reopened the forensic investigation. Blood drawn before papaverine was administered is being analyzed, and a determination of the cause of death is expected any day. Joe was cremated, and his father believes he may never know why his son died.

Discussion about Joe's death raged for months on a local blog until the editor said it had gone too far and shut down postings.

Some argued that P.J. should be removed as one of four captains of the Miramonte football team. Others posted that P.J. loved Joe and would be scarred forever. One wrote that Joe would have wanted P.J. to be captain.

A posting signed by Tom Payne addressed that student.

" . . . I can assure the Miramonte football players, that someday when friends and teammates reminisce on the 'good old days,' you will be referred to by peers as the team that elected and honored a criminal suspect out on bail as captain of your team."

That students from good families and strong schools had not called 911 when Joe first collapsed unnerved Orinda. Parents discovered that teens who passed out at parties often were ignored.

Dr. Jeffrey Klingman, assistant chief of staff at the hospital where Joe was taken, said the first requirement of CPR is to call 911. He used a term coined by those who study medical errors -- "failure to recognize" -- to explain the partygoers' reactions.

People get stuck in their own narratives -- Joe just needed to sleep it off -- and others reinforce it, Klingman said.

Giving underage drinkers immunity from prosecution for calling 911 might encourage them to summon help, Klingman said. Many colleges and at least two states, Colorado and New Jersey, provide immunity as a way to prevent alcohol-related deaths.

Joe's death forced Orinda schools and the community to reexamine their approach to substance abuse. Teaching "healthy choices" had not worked.

Chief French said teens continue to drink in town. "Apparently someone dying at a party has not affected their partying," he said. But he added that some teens do go to parties and abstain. The answer may lie in finding out why, he said.

In October, Bill Loudon attended a Miramonte football game for the first time since Joe died. He sat close to P.J.'s family and was tearful when he left. Loudon said later that "hearing others talk about Joe keeps him alive for me."

Payne turned over the keys to her Orinda home on the five-month anniversary of Joe's death. Images of Joe raced through her mind as she wandered through empty rooms. There was Joe "sprawled out in front of the NFL Channel with his Latin book," she said.

She said she still wants a complete understanding of what happened at the party and wants teens who violated the law held to account.

"Since Joe's death, I have fallen into a bit of a dark world, where I have been approached by many who have experienced similar loss and who have shared their stories," Payne wrote in an e-mail. "With this knowledge, I no longer see shades of gray" on issues of teen drinking.

Orinda held a triathlon in Joe's memory last weekend. Charlie Loudon, 13, Joe's younger brother, came in first in his age group. The City Council gave him a medal Tuesday. Charlie said Joe had kept him going.

The football team intends to retire Joe's number. Only Charlie will be allowed to wear 18 one day. Joe's photograph hangs in the locker room, and each coach and player touches it before entering the field. The team shouts "J-Lo," Joe's nickname, after game breaks. Every game is dedicated to him.

I have not seen Joe's mother since his death. We communicated by e-mail and telephone. But my son said he has glimpsed her twice while she was driving. She often drove him home from football practice, and he admired her.

He told me he felt happy when he spotted her. Seeing her brought back a little of Joe.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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