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Death Spurs Hard Look at Teen Drinking in La Canada

July 10, 1986|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

La Canada Flintridge, noted for its affluence and good schools, has gained recognition for something else lately: adolescent drinking.

Concern is at an all-time high because of the alcohol-related death May 31 of a 17-year-old resident who fell from a balcony after attending a large party and the arrest of another teen-ager for supplying liquor to minors at that party.

In response, the hillside community has banned pay-for-admission parties and is studying the idea of a disco or clubhouse where teen-agers could gather but where alcohol would not be served.

City officials have also asked the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to crack down on teen-age drinking. So far, two minors and one liquor store clerk have been cited for violations in incidents unrelated to the May 31 death.

Some residents of La Canada Flintridge, where the median yearly income of $38,000 is well over twice the Los Angeles County average, say teen-age drinking is no more prevalent in their city than in any other. Others say a custom of large unsupervised teen-age parties has arisen in an otherwise quiet community.

"This is a conservative, upper-middle-class school district," said Voytek Dolinski, an assistant principal who has been at La Canada High School 21 years. "We have almost no minorities. It's very suburban, Anglo and predominantly Republican. The kids get fantastically high grades and dress beautifully."

As to teen-age drinking, "I'm sure the affluence of the community contributes to it, the availability of nice homes and families not always at home," Dolinski says.

The role of parents is drawing increased attention.

"There are a lot of parents that aren't assuming responsibility by leaving town or by letting their kids drink in front of them," says Jan Krall, former president of Parent Alert, a local group that has for three years worked to educate families and teen-agers about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.

City Manager Don Otterman says that, for at least five years, teen-agers have played host to large pay-for-admission keg parties that draw as many as 500 young party goers. In the past, sheriff's deputies often broke up the parties when neighbors complained about noise, and intoxicated teen-agers occasionally were arrested, said Capt. John Biard of the Crescenta Valley Sheriff's Station.

But it wasn't until late May that the concern of parents, teen-agers and community leaders coalesced, after Joseph Miller Lutz, a junior at La Canada High School, fell to his death after a large pay-for-admission party given by Simon D'Arcy, 18, a senior at La Canada at the time.

Fall off Balcony

Sheriff's investigators surmise that Lutz, who spent the night at the D'Arcy home after the party broke up, was killed when he fell out of the second-floor balcony. The actual circumstances of the death have not been determined. However, police have ruled out homicide.

Lutz's death stunned La Canada High School. Caroline Tiffany, a friend and classmate of Lutz, recalls that "half the school was walking around like zombies" the following day. "Joe wasn't a druggie or an alcoholic. It could have happened to anyone," she said.

While the community waited for a coroner's report, the City Council passed an emergency law similar to that of Los Angeles County, which outlaws parties at which admission is charged. The law has met with disapproval from some parents and teen-agers, who say youths need a place to gather.

The Sheriff's Department began surveillance of retail stores suspected of selling alcohol to minors, and deputies began paying visits to prospective party hosts to warn them that underage-drinking laws would be strictly enforced.

The tragedy also drew teen-agers and parents to special hearings held by the Public Safety Commission. Several youths suggested the need for alternate social activities. This week, the City Council agreed to appoint a committee of civic officials, youth group members and church officials to study the feasibility of a clubhouse for teen-agers. The city also plans to publicize the names of minors, store clerks and retail outlets cited for violation of underage-drinking laws.

The community eventually learned from the Los Angeles County coroner's office that Lutz died of head injuries. A coroner's spokesman said that, at the time of his death, Lutz's blood alcohol level exceeded .10, which made him "under the influence" by state law.

Meanwhile, D'Arcy, the host of the party at which Lutz died, was charged by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office with providing alcohol to minors, a misdemeanor. Officials say the arrest was made at the request of the Sheriff's Department. D'Arcy is scheduled for arraignment in Glendale Municipal Court on July 22 and faces a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine, the district attorney's office said.

La Canada Flintridge Mayor O. Warren Hillgren said the arrest was a clear sign that the city is cracking down on drinking by teen-agers.

Seen as Acceptable

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