Party Drug, Fatal Drug

Shari Rich Took Pills That Killed Her

A beautiful Sunday, a beautiful church service. But, for Debi and Rodney Rich, Sunday mornings are still just too painful. On another Sunday morning, just last year, police told them their daughter, Shari, was dead from a drug overdose. Correspondent Troy Roberts reports.

"It's so very hard," says Debi Rich. "It's hard for me to believe that she won't just walk through the door."

When the police told the Riches that they suspected ecstasy killed their daughter, Rodney Rich recalls thinking, "I don't believe this has happened to me. This happens to other people."

Shari was 19 years old, a college student who was working part-time at Disney World. Says her father, "We didn't even talk about drugs because it was a non-issue in our house."

But last summer, Shari moved out of her parents' house and began dating a new boyfriend, Francisco Cordona. Together, they started to experiment with drugs.

Her mother says Shari needed "to spread her wings and get out in the real world. I just didn't want her to get that far into the world."

Adds her father, "They were looking for the ultimate high. That was his exact words. And that's how it started."

It ended one night last August when, according to police, Francisco bought pills from an ecstasy dealer in Orlando - six of them, brown with black spots. They each took three pills. A few hours after swallowing the pills, Shari passed out. Her roommate, Celian Quintero, says she returned home to find Shari unconscious on the floor, and Francisco just watching, helpless.

Celian called paramedics and tried to revive Shari. But she was already dead.

When Detective Ralph Fiorenza arrived on the scene, the first thing he noticed was Shari's body temperature: 104 degrees, and she had been dead at least an hour.

Shari Rich's story could have ended right there, one more tragic death from a drug overdose, except for one startling thing: Toxicology tests performed after her death revealed that the drug that killed her - the drug everyone thought was ecstasy - wasn't ecstasy at all.

It was para-methoxy amphetamine (PMA), a drug so new that even Bruce Goldberger, he toxicologist who did the tests, hadn't seen it before.

Goldberger now knows PMA is a powerful stimulant that drug dealers sometimes pawn off as ecstasy. To the naked eye, they're indistinguishable. But PMA has one deadly difference: "It releases control over our body temperature," says Goldberger. "You cannot survive this overheating."

And, he says, PMA isn't the only copycat drug peddled as ecstasy. There are also ketamine, caffeine, salicylate, ephedrine and others.

Up until last summer, hardly anyone in Florida had even heard of impure ecstasy, much less PMA. And then, all summer long, all across central Florida, young people began dying: six in two months, a PMA epidemic.

But how can you keep kids from taking fake ecstasy when you can't seem to stop them from taking the real thing? So far, the only suggestion comes from a group of young activists whose approach is a bit off the beaten path.

John Norris of MTV News, on assignment for 48 Hours, visited an all-night rave in the woods outside of Seattle to report on an organization called DanceSafe.

When the sun sets and the music starts, the DanceSafe volunteers go to work, testing ecstasy for adulterants like PMA. Anyone can bring them a pill. First, they scrape it with a razor to obtain a sample. Then they add a few drops of a chemical solution. If there is any ecstasy in the sample, it turns purple.

Other drugs turn different colors. Most (including PMA) don't change color at all. But whatever the result - and this is the controversial part - DanceSafe returns the pill to the user.

There are people who would say that the responsible thing to do is to take that pill away from them, regardless of what's in it. But a DanceSafe volunteer says that all it takes is $20 to buy another pill and, the next time, a partygoer might take it without having it checked first.

"We're not trying to make drug use safer. We are making drug use safer," says Emanuel Sferios, who founded DanceSafe. Now he oversees 24 chapters across the U.S. He adds, "If Shari Rich had access to one of our testing kits, she would still be alive today."

Sferios insists he is not encouraging ecstasy use, but when he lectures, he says things like: "Everybody, practically, who does it, enjoys it."

And here is a quote from the DanceSafe Web site: "By all indications, if used moderately and responsibly, MDMA seems far less dangerous than most recreational drugs - especially the two legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco." And Sferios does not call that drug advocacy?

"Oh, it's not advocacy at all. It's simply telling the truth about a substance," he replies, adding, "We respect the ability of teen-agers to make their own decisions. And we've seen great results."

Case in point: Michael, at a rave in Buffalo, ecstasy in hand. But it had a dark speckle oit that was worrying the young man, because it sounds suspiciously like the PMA that killed Shari Rich.

"I wouldn't take anything without testing it," says Michael.

Good news for Michael: DanceSafe's Buffalo chapter is set up inside. And his pill tests positive for an ecstasy-type substance.

But Michael's still not convinced, and he's not taking that pill.

Of course, for every Michael, there is someone like 19-year-old Jenny. Her pill tests negative for ecstasy, but it shows signs of containing the powerful amphetamine known as speed. There could be other drugs or substances as well. But the test did detect speed.

Let's just say Jenny takes the news in stride.

I'll probably take it anyway," says Jenny. "What the hell."

And a few minutes later, that's exactly what she does: swallows her pill (whatever it is) and disappears into the crowd.

For the record, we heard from Jenny the next day. She's OK, as was everyone at that rave, and DanceSafe says that's proof their test saves lives.

But, in Florida, at least one toxicology expert wishes DanceSafe would leave pill testing to the professionals. When he tests a pill, Bruce Goldberger does it in a completely sterile environment. DanceSafe, it almost goes without saying, does not. Goldberger says the DanceSafe tests are not reliable, adding, "The people in my lab have degrees in this field. Masters and Ph.D. degrees."

Of course, for Debi and Rodney Rich, the lesson they want kids to learn requires no degree at all.

Says Debi Rich, "And kids need to know, even if you think you're on the right track and your whole life is planned out ahead of you, you need to beware. Because it takes just one pill and it's over."

Ecstasy: Main Page