Coroner IDs teens found dead

Two teenagers whose bodies were found Friday in a vacant Huntington Beach apartment have been identified by the coroner.

Aaron Saenz, 15, of Westminster and Chelsea Taylor, 16, of Huntington Beach were found shortly after 10 a.m. Friday in a vacant apartment at Via Verde, a 277-unit complex at 15555 Huntington Village Lane. The bodies were found next to an empty can of the caffeinated alcohol drink Four Loko, police Lt. Russell Reinhart said.

Staff at the complex called police when they glimpsed the teens through the window of the apartment, Reinhart said. It was unclear whether the teens were alive when police were called or how long they had been dead before officers arrived, he said.

"Management called and said, 'There's somebody inside,'" Reinhart said. "They didn't know if they were alive or deceased at the time."

Reinhart said officers found other indications of drug and alcohol use in the apartment, but he declined to elaborate because the investigation was ongoing.

Claudia Lara, a community manager for Via Verde, said Aaron's father had lived at the complex recently, and the bodies were found in his former apartment. She noted that the upscale complex, near Golden West College and the Bella Terra shopping center, rarely experienced police visits.

Via Verde, which features on-site management and maintenance staff, contains upstairs and downstairs apartments and townhomes surrounded by waterfalls, winding streams and trees. Lara said rents start around $1,400 and only a few units are vacant.

Resident Woody Gilmore, who has lived at Via Verde for two years, said he returned home from work shortly after noon Friday and found part of the complex surrounded by police.

"I just remember there were a whole lot of cop cars here," he said.

A state spokesman said Four Loko is illegal in California after the Department of Public Health declared in November that it violated state guidelines.

John Carr, a public information officer for the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, said the drink's manufacturer had been ordered to put out a new version that didn't mix caffeine with alcohol. As long as the drink contained both ingredients, he said, it could not legally be sold in the state.

According to Four Loko's website, the drink contains either 6% or 12% alcohol, depending on state regulations. The drink's manufacturer received a warning in November from the federal Food and Drug Administration that it was unsafe, and some states and universities have banned it.

"We've been informed that they were going to reformulate the product and take the caffeine out and put it back on the shelf," Carr said. "It would be a legal product if it met the health department guidelines on not being an adulterated beverage."

Four Loko's website states that the drink has been on the market since August 2008 and comes in eight fruit flavors. The site notes that the drink is responsibly packaged and similar to other products on the market. Phrases like "nothing new" and "same alcohol content as wine and some craft beers" are singled out with bold font on the site.

Phusion Projects, the drink's manufacturer, issued a statement Tuesday saying the company is "extremely saddened by this tragic event" and had taken steps to recall cans of Four Loko that contained caffeine.

"We work very hard to ensure our products are consumed safely and responsibly by adults over the age of 21, and we have a vested interest — both personal and professional — in assuring the continued responsible consumption of our products," the statement read. "Those that sell or provide alcohol to minors should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

Reinhart said Huntington Beach police have had occasional problems with Four Loko, though nothing on the level of Friday's incident.

"We've had problems with people drinking it on the beach, but we haven't had any deaths," he said.

Anyone with information is asked to call Det. Pam Ellis at (714) 536-5971.

Los Angeles Times staff writers Nate Jackson and Kimi Yoshino contributed to this report.

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