Drinking death of teen on Shore raises questions

August 13, 1991|By Peter Jensen and Maureen McNeill | Peter Jensen and Maureen McNeill,Sun Staff Correspondents

SALISBURY -- The death here on Sunday of a 15-year-old boy who may have drunk as many as 26 shots of liquor at a teen party before becoming sick illustrates this Eastern Shore community's continuing problems with teen-age alcohol abuse, according to local authorities.

A state medical examiner's report determined that Brian Christopher Ball of Trenton, Texas, who was visiting relatives in the Salisbury area last week, died of alcohol poisoning and asphyxiation from choking on his own vomit, said Davis Ruark, state's attorney of Wicomico County.

Police said the youth was one of about 200 boys and girls attending a party Friday evening at the home of Ralph G. Lynch, about half a mile east of the Salisbury city line.

Investigators said Mr. Lynch was not home at the time, and the gathering was held by his teen-age son without his parents' permission.

Wicomico County Sheriff Hunter Nelms said such teen gatherings, frequently held at the homes of unsuspecting parents or in secluded woods, are regular events year-round in this mostly rural county of about 74,000 residents on the lower Eastern Shore.

Police rarely make arrests when they come across parties but do generally disperse crowds and notify absent homeowners, he said.

Teens frequently complain of little else to do on weekends.

Local health officials say parents, though fearful of drug abuse, often have a relaxed attitude toward drinking.

"They start out sipping Mom and Dad's beers at 6 or 7; and by the time they're 13, some of these kids are really doing some drinking," said Robert C. Short, director of an addiction center within the Wicomico County Health Department. "On the Eastern Shore there's a macho image of parents wanting their sons to know how to handle liquor."

Two young men who attended Friday night's party, Mark Lynch, 19, and Blair Rinnier, 18, both of Salisbury, said yesterday that they had heard that someone downed 26 shots of hard liquor that night but were unaware anyone had become seriously ill until they heard it on the evening news Sunday.

"It was crowded, but it wasn't like people were stumbling around drunk," said Mr. Lynch, a sophomore at Salisbury State University who is no relation to the homeowner. "I don't think anybody realized what was happening."

According to state police, young Ball was taken from the party to Salisbury's Peninsula General Hospital Medical Center by several youths. One of the teens went inside the hospital, notified the staff and left without giving his name.

Outside the building, hospital nurses found young Ball lying on the ground, unconscious and not breathing. He was admitted into the hospital's intensive care unit, where his blood alcohol content was measured at .37, a level generally considered to be lethal, police said.

A Wicomico County sheriff's deputy broke up the party shortly after the department received a noise complaint from a neighbor at 10:37 p.m. By the time the deputy arrived the youth had already been taken to the hospital, and police did not connect the two events until later, said Sheriff Nelms.

State police Sgt. Edwin Lashley said the party was an "all-you-can-drink" event where guests were charged a $3 admittance and 50 cents for shots of hard liquor. The party was fueled by three half-gallons of rum, two half-gallons of vodka and six cases of beer, he said.

Police said they hoped to find the individual who bought the liquor for the youths. No arrests had been made by last night.

Health officials said a 1989 survey of 11th- and 12th-graders in Wicomico County found that 60 to 70 percent drink at least once a month, and 25 percent report getting intoxicated every week.

"When it comes to drinking, Wicomico's numbers are higher than Baltimore City . . . higher than the national average," Mr. Short said.

Mark Lynch, who is spending the summer working for a landscape contractor before returning to college this fall, said parties are generally advertised by word-of-mouth and are easy to find, particularly in the summer.

"It's like a disease, the way the word spreads, through the phone mostly," he said. "I'm sure there's something going on just about every night -- not always big parties but small get-togethers."

State police said they hoped to spread the word statewide that they intend to crack down on illegal alcohol use by minors. While alcohol poisoning is not common, it is symptomatic of a more widespread problem of alcohol misuse, said Sergeant Lashley.

"There's a potential danger. You can lose a life," Sergeant Lashley said. "Death usually hasn't been the result of alcohol consumption, but we want to tell people that this can happen as a result of abuse."

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