Unfortunately, this scenario plays out more often than we’d like to think. Or, maybe it’s that I’ve had more contact than most with a mother or father suffering the worst pain imaginable: the loss of their child.
I used to cover crime in Richmond, and, as you know, there was and continues to be too much killing going on in that town—mostly of young males, in their teens and early 20s. They usually died in what you could call street shootings—homicides that detectives loosely categorized gang- or drug-related. These victims also usually came from poor families, and are African-American, Latino or Southeast Asian.
These victims usually left behind a mother, and sometimes a father was in the picture, too. And the grief that tormented these parents was compounded by the fact that it was typicaly hard to get information about why this terrible thing had happened to their child and to their family.
You see, in the impoverished neighborhoods of Richmond, and in urban areas around the country, a Code of Silence persists around most crimes, notably homicide. A notable example: A young man, who was 17 or 18, was gunned down in the middle of a weekday afternoon in a public Richmond park. Dozens of people of all ages were around, and the boy was probably with friends. Someone in this crowd presumably saw the shooters, as well as if they arrived and left in a car. The victim’s friends might have even known the shooters’ names, or at least knew whether he had done something to tick anyone off.
The boy’s mother knew her son wasn’t a perfect angel. At the same time, she knew him in the way mothers often know their sons—as a loving boy full of promise. She wanted to know who and why someone took him from her. But when police started canvassing the neighborhood and interviewing the boy’s friends, they were met with shrugs and stony silence. To some extent, the reluctance to cooperate that these Richmond detectives encountered stems from deep-seated mistrust between police and the poor, minority residents of such neighborhoods. In any event, when I left that job a couple years later, that boy’s murder was still unsolved, as were so many others in the land of the Code of Silence.
Now, I turn my attention to the more recent death of a boy. But he didn’t die in some inner-city gang or drug shooting. He died at a party in a home in affluent—and largely white—Orinda.
Still, as with crimes in certain tough, violent neighborhoods of Richmond, a Code of Silence also surrounds this tragedy.
"There are kids and adults in our community who most definitely know what happened," says Marianne Payne, the mother of Joseph Loudon, the 16-year-old Orinda boy who died. "They are remaining silent at great cost to Joe. He deserves the truth."
On the night of May 23, Joseph collapsed at a party hosted by an 18-year-old neighbor and rugby teammate. After someone finally noticed Joseph passed out and called 911, he was rushed to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Joseph was to start his junior year at Miramonte High School, one of the top-ranked schools in the Bay Area. He was also an athlete. “Joe was a wonderful child and how he lived his life mattered greatly to him. He was an individual with great character and integrity,” Payne writes in an e-mail to me.
Payne adds that this past week her son would have been on a Boy Scout backpacking trip in New Mexico: “It is what he described as the ‘pinacle of all scout experiences’—a 14-day trek through the wilderness. He had been looking forward to it for years. We shopped at the REI sale on Mother's Day--and his new backpack and boots sit in my room, tags still attached as it is just too painful to think of returning them."
For a couple months, it was widely assumed that Joseph, like a fair number of teens in our community, had engaged in binge drinking and died of alcohol poisoning. Then, the coroner’s report came back with news that refuted that assumption, while raising other puzzling questions about his cause of death.
It turns out that, yes, Joseph had consumed a small amount of alcohol. But actually, what triggered the series of physical reactions that killed him—he officially died of asphyxiation after choking on his own vomit—was that his body contained high levels of a drug for which Joseph had no prescription or medical use. It’s also a medication that police had not come across before, specifically as a prescription drug that teens and adults might misuse for recreational purposes.
The drug is Papaverine, a vasodilator. That is, it helps people with circulatory problems. The newspapers have also made much of the fact that it is used by men who have difficulty with erectile function.
Payne has publicly vented her frustration with how Orinda police have handled the investigation. She sent a letter to Contra Costa District Attorney Bob Kochly, listing what she considered to be basic investigative steps that police failed to take, some of which the blogger the East Bay Daze mentions here.
She says she is disappointed by Kochly’s response: “While I understand Mrs. Payne's frustration, some of the questions she has may never be fully answered. This is simply the reality in many criminal investigations, regardless of how intensively the case is investigated."
To some extent, Kochly is right in saying that questions remain unanswered in many criminal investigations. That's certainly the case for crimes that occur in communities where the Code of Silence is a way of life.
But is the Code of Silence a way of life in Orinda, too?
I thought those of us who live in the East Bay suburbs--well we're comfortably assimilated in mainstream culture and are raised to believe in our criminal justice system and to have faith in police and other authorities. And we’re good, decent people right? We care about our kids, and those of our neighbors. We want to protect these kids and step forward and help when bad things happen to them. We don't live by a Code of Silence, and we don't tolerate disrespect for the law.
I’m sure the parents of Joseph’s friends, the parents whose kids attend Miramonte or were at the party where Joseph died, like to think of themselves as good, decent people. They like to think that they are raising good, decent kids.
Payne has hired a private investigator to find anyone in the area who had a prescription for Papaverine. One theory is that someone raided their parents’ or grandparents’ medicine cabinet for drugs to have fun with. Maybe someone brought some Papaverine pills to the party, not quite knowing what they are used for, and somehow this drug got into Joe’s body. He either took it knowingly, a possibility that Payne disputes, or someone slipped it to him without his knowledge.
Doc Gurly, the medical blogger for SFGate.com, wrote the following about possible circumstances surrounding Joseph’s death: “Working in a clinic that sees many people who use recreational substances, and also living in a suburban community like Joseph's—one thing is clear to me. People often take pills even when they're not sure exactly what the pill is. The person who's most likely to fall for a ‘bait and switch’ type of pill (someone sells it, promising Oxycontin, when the pill is actually a diuretic...) is the inexperienced user. Furthermore, people, in general, are quite trusting when it comes to taking random pills from people they know. Finally, suburban homes are goldmines of medicine cabinet wealth. Grandpa might be taking both Demerol and papaverine—and someone raided Grandpa's cabinet, not realizing he kept both those pills in the same bottle.
It seems clear that someone in the community knows something about how this drug got into Joseph’s body.
Payne just wants to find out why: “Why do I need answers? Every parent in Lamorinda should be seeking answers. This could very well have been anyone's son and without answers it may very well happen again. The truth must be known.”
Yes, she’s right. What happened to Joseph could happen to any of our kids, including my son in a few years—sooner than I’d like to acknowledge.
Payne’s quest for information probably stems from other needs as well. A terrible thing happened to her child. A terrible thing has happened to her and her family. Something I learned from those parents in Richmond: When terrible things happen to people, they often need information about why and how. Those answers can be crucial for some parents to piece together some narrative of the terrible thing that has happened. This narrative helps them make sense out of the chaos that surrounds the traumatic event. It can also help survivors endure their grief, lessen some of their suffering, and lead to what’s called “closure.”
I’m not sure how much closure there ever will be for Marianne Payne and to what extent she’ll ever be able to get over her grief. Sadly, I don’t know how a parent ever gets over the sudden, unexpected death of a child. Still, it’s likely that having more information—more than what she has now—will help Payne. If only a little.
So, if you know something, contact Payne’s private investigator, Mike Mahoney, at (925) 648-3605. You can also visit the website that Loudon's friends and family have set up on behalf on this inquiry.