Night of Partying Proves Deadly for Popular Student
By the time the rainy night stretched into early morning, Samantha Spady had been drinking and partying for hours. Earlier, it was beer and shots of tequila. Now, inside a fraternity house, she was swilling vanilla vodka straight from the bottle.
The binge had gone on for 11 hours. When it was over, the Colorado State student’s blood-alcohol level was more than five times the legal driving limit in Colorado. She was stumbling, unable to even stand on her own.
Two students wrapped the 19-year-old’s limp arms around their necks and walked her to a forgotten fraternity room full of extra furniture, old beer bottles and the glow of a black light.
They laid her on a couch and, a few minutes later, Sam blinked her eyes and nodded as the last person left the room.
She just needs to sleep it off, her friends thought.
Sam grew up in Beatrice, a small town in the southeast corner of Nebraska about 35 miles from Lincoln. There, her father owned a car dealership and everyone knew her.
It was hard not to. Senior class president. Head cheerleader. Honor student. Homecoming queen.
On weekends, she and her friends would head to the country to hang out and sometimes drink beer. But Sam never drank to get drunk, said Kelleigh Doyle, her best friend from high school.
More than anything, she wanted to escape her rural life. Fort Collins, with its 127,000 people, was just big enough. She loved this college town, its quaint downtown shops and tree-lined neighborhoods. In the fall, streets fill with amber and chestnut leaves that crackle when students stroll to class in the Colorado chill.
The sophomore business major hadn’t really known anyone here, but quickly made friends. Her mother had always admired that about her, the way people were drawn to her.
Sam had pledged Chi Omega sorority as a freshman, but it took up a lot of time. There were functions to attend, and it was hard to balance with schoolwork. She longed for home-cooked meals and her bed at home and, by her second semester, had dropped out of Chi Omega.
In her health class journal, she talked about her struggles with the sorority and how she missed her family.
Mirna Guerra hadn’t known Sam that long when the two decided to get together Sept. 4, the Saturday before Labor Day and the evening of the big Colorado State-Colorado football game.
Sam picked up Mirna, a freshman, just before 6 p.m. and they went to a house to watch the game. Sam drank a beer, downed two shots of tequila, ate a hot dog, and munched on chips and dip. They left two hours later.
They watched the rest of the game at another house, where Sam drank a few beers from a super-size cup. They left around 10:30 p.m.
Friends told police that Sam had been out partying the last three nights. It wasn’t unusual for her to drink three or four times a week. Sometimes, Sam vomited and later passed out.
“It’s what everyone does,” said Sam’s roommate, Sara Gibson. “Some people party every night.”
It’s college. Away from parents, often for the first time for any extended period, college students can come and go as they please, and are free to experiment with alcohol. Drinking becomes part of the culture.
Parties come on the fly, and there’s never a shortage of kegs to tap. In pubs and bars near campus, drinks are cheap, and women often get them free. All-you-can-drink nights for $5 a pop are common.
All of it is an invitation for binge drinking, said Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. And there is no one to tell them no.
“They’re without parental supervision. They’re at a period of life when they explore and experiment,” he said.
Nationally, 44% of college students report binge drinking -- five drinks in a row for men, four for women -- at least once in the previous two weeks. Half of those students do it more than once a week.
Although the percentage of binge drinkers has stayed about the same over the last 11 years, the amount they drink at one sitting has increased, Wechsler said. Members of fraternities and sororities tend to drink more than other students.
Nationally, there are more than 1,400 alcohol-related deaths each year among college students. Most are the result of automobile accidents.
It was raining hard, and Sam was having a hard time seeing because of the storm. She hit the median and ended up flattening two tires. Mirna didn’t think that Sam was drunk.
Upset and unsure of what to do, Sam called her parents. No answer.
It didn’t spoil the evening. Sam and Mirna still wanted to find a good party. They soon did.
For about two hours, they drank and danced to Michael Jackson. Sam downed four or five cups of beer. She may have played drinking games.
“By then, we had started drinking pretty fast,” Mirna said.
Still, Sam seemed fine. She and Mirna were having a good time, talking about music they liked and possibly rooming together next year.
Around 2:30 a.m., Sam and Mirna were at the Sigma Pi house, a place she felt comfortable. Sam had lots of friends in the fraternity and had dated a few members. Some considered her a little sister.
“She always made people smile,” said Darren Pettapiece, Sigma Pi president.
About 25 people were at the fraternity house, hanging out in the hallway or drinking and talking in rooms.
“You could kind of tell she was drunk, but you couldn’t tell how drunk,” said Matthew Kilby, a student at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely who was at the Sigma Pi house that night.
Gibson, 19, and another one of Sam’s roommates were also there, but they left about an hour later. They knew that Sam was drunk, but they had seen her worse.
“I was like, come back with me,” she said. “She looked me in the face, saying I want to stay.”
Another beer later, and Sam and Mirna were hanging out in one of the bedrooms, listening to the group Dispatch with other students. By then, just a few people were still awake at the fraternity house. Around 4 a.m., Sam and Mirna were doing swigs of Sam’s favorite drink -- vanilla vodka. They put the bottles to their lips and tilted their heads back as the room echoed: “Go, go, go!”
Minutes later, Sam was sitting on the front stoop, resting her head on her elbows.
She was unable to stand and fell back. Her head hung down and she didn’t respond when friends spoke to her.
“When did you get so drunk?” Mirna asked.
Unresponsive. Incoherent. She should have been taken to a hospital then, said Dr. Charles Lieber, an expert in alcohol metabolism at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. But she wasn’t.
Around 5 a.m., Sigma Pi member Baylor Ferrier and a friend helped Sam upstairs and put her on a couch in an unused social room they called “Le Boom Boom.” Baylor had dated Sam the previous semester and says he had seen her worse; he thought that she just wanted to sleep.
“It didn’t seem like a big deal at all,” he said.
Mirna stayed with Sam for half an hour, urging her to walk back to her dorm room with her. She tried to help Sam stand, but Sam swayed and then fell over, so Mirna put her on another couch.
“She was going in and out of it. I would wake her up and clap,” Mirna said.
Sam opened her eyes, but couldn’t speak well. She nodded her head. She just wants to sleep, Mirna thought. She’ll be fine.
But the homecoming queen with the megawatt smile was dying.
She was likely in a coma, Lieber said. Her brain cells asleep, her respiration slowed. If she had gotten medical help, he said, even that late she might have lived. But there was no help in the Sigma Pi storeroom.
Soon after Mirna left, Samantha Spady took her last breath.
As Sunday dawned and the glint of orange crept through the mountains, Sam’s cellphone started ringing.
“Sam Bam, you were so drunk last night,” Mirna’s message began.
Her mother, Patty Spady, called, then waited. She called again. Still no Sam. She tried not to worry, but it was so unlike Sam not to call back.
Sam’s roommates tried too, calling Sigma Pi members, asking if anyone had seen her.
At Sam’s house near campus, Gibson had a bad feeling.
Almost 13 hours after Sam had been left to sleep off the drunken night, a fraternity member was giving his mother a tour of the house. Beer bottles and cans littered the house. Panties and bras hung from the entryway chandelier; a stripper pole was in one room.
When he opened the door to the social room that had been stuffed with extra couches, he saw Sam’s alcohol-poisoned body, clad in jeans and a yellow T-shirt. Her long blonde hair was pulled back. Her knees were on the floor, her face resting on a foam cushion. Her arms were outstretched to each side, almost like she was crawling.
It looked like she was sleeping.
“Hello?” he asked. “Hello?”
He touched her leg. It was cold and stiff.
She had a blood-alcohol level of 0.436%. The coroner said it probably was higher when she was left there; her body would have continued to metabolize alcohol while she was unconscious.
Since Sam’s death, the parties continue, the booze still flows.
But the Sigma Pi house has been shut down. Fraternities have banned alcohol, and alcohol sales are banned inside the football stadium. Nineteen people were cited for alcohol-related offenses as part of the investigation into Sam’s death.
“It’s not so much that we have a problem,” Sigma Pi member Matthew Dunn said. “It’s more that we have a few people who make the wrong decision. Sometimes young people don’t know how to handle alcohol.”
On Colorado campuses alone this fall, there have been four other alcohol-related deaths. Three students at colleges in Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico died after drinking with their fraternity brothers recently.
“It’s not just the students on that campus. It’s not just the faculty. It’s not just the bar owners. Everybody in the community has a responsibility for some changes to take place,” Patty Spady said.
Mirna Guerra and other friends Sam was with that night still party. But they also remember Sam, and they wonder how she could have drank so much -- enough to die -- and they didn’t know it.
“I was thinking, why didn’t I stay with her?” Mirna said. “Why didn’t I know something was wrong?”
This report is based on the Fort Collins police report, the Larimer County coroner’s report, and interviews with Patty Spady, Mirna Guerra, Sara Gibson, Baylor Ferrier, Matthew Kilby and Sigma Pi fraternity members.