CAUTIONARY TALE

Ecstasy teen’s torment revealed

Shortly after taking one Ecstasy pill, Belmont middle-schooler Irma Perez complained of a headache. That was followed by dizziness, violent vomiting and a bleeding tongue. She told her sleepover companions she heard herself making “noises like a dead person.” In the early morning, more than five hours later, she was moaning and screaming in agony as her brain swelled, her motor skills failed and eventually she became unresponsive. Yet, nobody helped her. Not the two girls she took it with nor Calin Fintzi, the 17-year-old boy who allegedly sold them the pills. Neither did the parents whose home Perez was at, said Fintzi’s defense attorney Vince O’Malley. Instead, when Perez’s older sister arrived at the house after a call from the mother, she said the father tried dissuading her from seeking medical help.

“He said ‘Take her with you. Don’t call 911,” testified Imelda Perez, 26.

The wide number of people who could have possibly prevented Perez’s death — but didn’t — doesn’t absolve Fintzi of responsibility, O’Malley argued yesterday. But it does mean he shouldn’t face involuntary manslaughter charges, he said.

“There are a lot of fingers to be pointed,” O’Malley said. “People who let her die in that room, adults ...”

At that point, after a day of emotional and graphic testimony about Perez’s final hours April 24, O’Malley’s voice cracked. Juvenile court Judge Marta Diaz offered to put off arguments until today on the probable cause of the charges against Fintzi. O’Malley composed himself enough to finish condemning the parents who he said cleaned up Perez’s large amounts of vomit and waited nearly an hour before calling her sister.

“They hoped she would shake it off,” O’Malley said.

Verdict expected today

Diaz seemed to weigh O’Malley’s comments seriously and will render a verdict this morning on if enough evidence exists to try Fintzi. If so, a hearing on whether he should be tried as an adult will immediately begin. An adult conviction on all charges carries about 10 years in prison rather than the California Youth Authority. As a juvenile, Fintzi can only be held until age 25 when he would be released and his record expunged. Four other people were arrested after Perez’s death; all agreed to plea bargains. Their truncated hearings made yesterday the first time all the details surrounding the fatal slumber party came to light.

According to Belmont police officers who testified, Perez attended a sleepover April 23 with two friends. One of the girls bought three Ecstasy pills for $20 each from Fintzi the day before and took one. She became ill and vomited before calling Fintzi to buy another. He and his drug dealing partner Antonio Rivera, 20, dropped off the pill at the girl’s home. The girls popped the pills around 9:30 p.m. and by 10:30, Perez complained of feeling ill. They called Fintzi who suggested bread and milk. Perez worsened and soon couldn’t even take herself to the bathroom. Finally, Fintzi and two friends arrived at the home and stayed between 2:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. One friend was so aghast at Perez’s condition he hid in the closet while the other two gave Perez water and marijuana. Fintzi said she was only having a “bad trip” before leaving with his friends, prosecutor Elizabeth Raffaelli said.

“He continued to reassure the girls that Irma was going to be OK,” testified Belmont police Officer John Bradley.

Painful death

The girl’s grandmother heard Perez screaming about 5:40 a.m. when she rose to make coffee. The girl’s mother found them in the bedroom and called Imelda Perez. By the time paramedics arrived, Perez was convulsing and grabbing at them. She was rushed to San Mateo Medical Center and Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital but attending pediatric critical care Dr. Leslie Avery said it was too late. Perez was comatose, non-responsive and bending her arms in a way that indicates impending brain death. In short, Avery and forensic Dr. Peter Benson said Perez died from a swollen brain caused by lack of oxygen. Her cerebellum dissolved as her brain tried to escape its confined space, Benson said. But, according to the experts, her life didn’t have to end that way.

“There is a significant likelihood that she would have been still alive today” if she received medical help, Avery said.

Less than a day after Fintzi was called to Perez’s side, he collected more Ecstasy from Rivera to sell at the Carlmont High School prom. He was arrested Saturday afternoon and showed police a stash of pills he had in his sock. During his interview, he was cold and unempathetic, said Belmont police Detective Donald Ray Lewis.

“He was all business,” Lewis said.

Dealers’ story

Fintzi detailed his drug business with Rivera to police. The two met about three months before and began selling cocaine. They moved onto Ecstasy and were moving their third batch of pills when Perez died.

The Sunday before, Fintzi, one of Perez’s friends and a different 14-year-old girl spent the afternoon sharing lines of cocaine. Although none of the drug details are relevant to Fintzi’s liability in Perez’s death, they can be used to determine if he should be tried as an adult. So far, only Rivera will receive an adult sentence of up to eight years in prison after pleading no contest to providing drugs to a minor and child endangerment. The two girls pleaded no contest to child endangerment and were sentenced to rehabilitation programs. Diaz ordered one girl to write a biography of Perez based on interviews with her friends and family.

The girl’s family was investigated by the District Attorney’s Office for criminal negligence after the death but prosecutors did not find any reason to charge them. “As in any case, if there are additional facts that would cause us to re-evaluate, we do will do so. At this point, there isn’t,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

When asked if she’ll pursue a civil lawsuit against the criminal defendants or the girl’s parents, Imelda Perez refused to say. Five people successfully receive organs from Perez after she was removed from life support.
“Irma’s death saved multiple children,” Avery said.

Michelle Durand
2 September 2004

http://www.smdailyjournal.org/article.cfm?issue=09-02-04&storyID=34403


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