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

Joe Loudon attended a gathering in Orinda, drank some beer and later died. Miscues in the investigation led to finger-pointing, igniting a debate over whether his death was an accident or a crime.

November 22, 2009|By Maura Dolan

Reporting from Orinda, Calif. — 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.

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